OFF THE COAST OF LIBYA (AP) — Italian naval ships and vessels from non-government groups rescued thousands of migrants off the Libyan coast on Monday, the latest surge in desperate attempts to flee to Europe driven by war, poverty, and human traffickers.
The dramatic operation took place just 21 kilometers (13 miles) north of the town of Sabratha in Libya. Groups such as Proactiva Open Arms and Doctors Without Borders helped take on some 3,000 people who had been travelling in some 20 small wooden boats.
In images and video by The Associated Press, migrants from Eritrea and Somalia cheered as the rescue boats arrived, with some jumping into the water and swimming toward them while others carefully carried babies onto the rescue ships.
Their boats too weak and technically unequipped for a voyage across the stretch of the Mediterranean to the shores of Italy, the migrants had set off with a bit of gasoline in the overcrowded vessels, hoping to make it at least 15-20 miles out to sea and reach awaiting rescuers.
Tens of thousands of Africans take the dangerous Mediterranean Sea route as a gateway to a better life in Europe, alongside those fleeing wars from Syria to Afghanistan.
Libya's chaos and lack of border controls have made it into a transit route. Since the 2011 ouster and killing of longtime Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, the country has sunk into lawlessness, facing a myriad of militias vying for influence and an emerging Islamic State affiliate.
In June, the European Union expanded its anti-smuggling operation in the central Mediterranean to include training Libyan coastal and naval forces, which are intercepting boats and returning migrants to Libya, where some are being held in abusive conditions.
Rights groups and experts estimate that there are about 3,500 migrants held in roughly 20 official detention facilities across Libya. Others are held in informal detention centers controlled by criminal gangs or armed groups.
This story has been corrected to show that the Spanish navy did not take part in the operation.