ROME (AP) — Pope Francis on Saturday joined Italy in pressing the European Union to do more to help the country cope with rapidly mounting numbers of desperate people rescued in the Mediterranean during journeys on smugglers' boats to flee war, persecution or poverty.
While hundreds of migrants took their first steps on land in Sicilian ports, dozens more were rescued at sea. Sicilian towns were running out of places to shelter the arrivals, including more than 10,000 in the week ending Saturday.
The Coast Guard said 74 migrants were saved from a sailboat shortly before it sank Saturday about 100 miles (160 kilometers) east of the coast of Calabria in southern Italy. A Coast Guard plane and a Dutch aircraft, part of an EU patrol mission, spotted the boat. Passengers included 10 children and three pregnant women.
With his wide popularity and deep concern for social issues, the pope's moral authority gives Italy a boost in its lobbying for Brussels and northern EU countries to do more. Since the start of 2014, nearly 200,000 people have been rescued at sea by Italy.
"I express my gratitude for the commitment that Italy is making to welcome the many migrants who, risking their life, ask to be taken in," said Francis, flanked by Italian President Sergio Mattarella. "It's evident that the proportions of the phenomenon require much broader involvement."
"We must never tire of appealing for a more extensive commitment on the European and international level," Francis said.
Italy says it will continue rescuing migrants but demands that the European Union increase assistance to shelter and rescue them. Since most of the migrants want to reach family or other members of their community in northern Europe, Italian governments have pushed for those countries to do more, particularly by taking in the migrants while their requests for asylum or refugee status are examined.
"For some time, Italy has called on the European Union for decisive intervention to stop this continuous loss of human life in the Mediterranean, the cradle of our civilization," Mattarella said.
The European Union's commissioner for migration, Dmitris Avramopoulos, says a new policy will be presented in May. Meanwhile, he has also called for member states to help.
Some of the 90 migrants who set foot Saturday on Palermo's docks were too weak to stand. Most were from Somalia. They were rescued by a merchant ship which intercepted their distress call, and then transferred the migrants to an Italian Coast Guard vessel.
Also on Saturday, an Italian navy ship arrived in the Sicilian port of Messina with more than 450 migrants, including 50 minors, from Ethiopia, Eritrea and Syria. Police arrested two suspected migrant-smugglers and marched them off the ship.
In Sardinia, two Nigerians were detained on suspicion they were the smugglers who steered a dinghy of migrants rescued on April 15. Cagliari police official Luca Armeni said two of the women among the rescued identified the suspects.
Earlier in the week, investigators in Palermo opened a probe after Christians rescued in waters south of Sicily told authorities that some Muslims among their fellow travelers threw 12 Christian migrants overboard. On Saturday, a judge in Palermo upheld the arrest of 14 of the Muslims whom Christian survivors had pinpointed as the ones who threw the Christians to their deaths, ANSA reported. A 15th Muslim migrant was being investigated separately because he is a minor.
With so many migrants arriving at once, many of the latest arrivals were being taken to other shelters on the Italian mainland, including in the north.
Days of calm seas and good weather, combined with increasing chaos and violence in Libya, are cited as factors in the current surge of migrants.
Andrea Rosa contributed to this report from Palermo
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