ROME (AP) — A flotilla of ships saved 668 migrants Saturday from smugglers' boats in distress in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Libya, Italian authorities said — bringing the week's total of migrants plucked from the sea to a staggering 13,000 people.
The rescues by the Italian coast guard and navy ships, aided by Irish and German vessels and humanitarian groups, are the latest by a multinational patrol south of the Italian island of Sicily.
The Irish military said the vessel Le Roisin saved 123 migrants from a 12-meter-long (40-foot) rubber dinghy and recovered a male body. A German ship patrolling to intercept smugglers' boats also was involved in four separate rescue operations, the Italian coast guard said Saturday evening.
Meanwhile, with migrant shelters filling up in Sicily, the Italian navy vessel Vega headed toward Reggio Calabria, a southern Italian mainland port, bringing 135 survivors and 45 bodies from a rescue a day earlier. The Vega was due to dock on Sunday.
Other survivors who arrived Saturday in the Sicilian port of Pozzallo told authorities they had witnessed a fishing boat filled with" hundreds" of migrants sink on Thursday, a Save The Children spokeswoman, Giovanna Di Benedetto, told The Associated Press by telephone from Sicily.
According to survivors, two smugglers' fishing boats and a dinghy set sail Wednesday night from Libya's coast. Di Benedetto said the survivors were among 500 or so aboard the one fishing boat that didn't sink and the dinghy.
"All of this must be verified, of course," said Di Benedetto, but if the survivors' accounts bear out, as many as 400 people could have drowned, with only a very few of those on the vessel that sank able to reach the other boats.
Authorities say many migrant boats in the past few years apparently have sunk without a trace in the Mediterranean, with the dead never found. Often the only news about them comes when family members in Africa or Europe tell authorities that their loved ones never arrived after setting sail from Libya.
Under a European Union deal, tens of thousands of those rescued at sea and seeking asylum were supposed to be relocated to other EU nations from Italy and Greece, where most of the migrants have landed. But with resentment building in some European countries about taking in more migrants, the plan never really took off, and only a small percentage of those slated for relocation have actually been moved.
At the Vatican on Saturday, Pope Francis told several hundred children, among them many migrants, who came from southern Italy that migrants "aren't a danger but they are in danger."
The pontiff held a red life vest given to him by a volunteer. He told the children the vest was used by a Syrian girl who died while trying to reach the Greek island of Lesbos.
"She's in heaven, she's watching us," Francis said.
Among those in the audience was a Nigerian youth who lost his parents in 2014 as the family tried to reach Italy by sea.
Francis has repeatedly expressed dismay that some European nations have refused to accept those fleeing poverty or war, and have even thrown up razor-wire fences and other barriers to thwart their arrivals.
In France, an Afghan migrant died after being hit by a truck near the coastal city of Calais.
Pas-de-Calais region Secretary-General Marc Del Grande said the 25-year-old was hit while he and about 50 other migrants were laying branches on the highway in an effort to slow traffic, hop on a truck and get to Britain.