In a dramatic rescue that underscores the press of migrants flowing from North Africa to Europe, hundreds of shipwrecked asylum-seekers from Libya were plucked off their stricken fishing boat by Italian coast guards on Sunday.
The asylum-seekers were rescued off the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa after their boat hit rocks and began to sink, with one coast guard officer describing it as a "miracle " that everyone survived. TV images of the dramatic night-time rescue showed some migrants jumping or falling into the sea, the BBC reported.
"There were about 500 people on board. It was a difficult situation. Our patrol boats couldn't come close because of the shallow water and the undertow was very strong," Antonio Morana, a coast guard spokesman, told news agency AFP.
Many refugees including women and children were later seen wrapped in thermal blankets on the shore, according to footage released by coast guards.
"The sea was rough and it was pushing the boat towards the coast," said coast guard officer, Davide Miserendino, according to AFP.
"When the first immigrants jumped into the water, we immediately dived in to try and rescue as many as possible," he said. "When we finished, to be honest, we burst out crying and embracing. We all thought about those children in the sea. It was incredible. It was a real miracle that we managed to rescue everyone.”
"We managed to save all the passengers. We believe there were no victims," Vittorio Alessandro, another coast guard official, said.
Coast guards said local fishermen also helped rescue some of the refugees and the whole operation was lit up by beams from nearby boats.
The rescue came hours after Pope Benedict urged Roman Catholics to show more tolerance towards migrants from north Africa.
At a Sunday mass for 300,000 people in Venice, he told them not to fear or reject the new arrivals, but to build bridges between peoples and nations, the BBC reported.