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Rome - Italian warships rescued 290 migrants in the Mediterranean on Tuesday as Rome launched a giant patrol operation to scare off people-smugglers, save asylum-seekers and pressure Europe to act.
Drones, warships and helicopters were deployed both inside and outside national waters following two tragic shipwrecks this month in which 400 Eritrean, Somali and Syrian refugees drowned.
Hi-tech radars and night-vision equipment are also being used in the operation, named Mare Nostrum (Our Sea) and aimed at preventing another disaster.
The navy has dispatched five warships to patrol the vast area and said in a statement on Tuesday that it had already rescued 290 migrants near the island of Lampedusa, Italy's southernmost point.
An Italian cargo ship also helped the Greek coastguard rescue 73 Syrians stranded on a yacht in the Ionian Sea after it ran out of fuel.
The latest arrivals come on top of the 32 000 asylum seekers that the UN refugee agency says have landed in Italy and Malta so far this year.
Most leave from an increasingly lawless Libya and arrive in Lampedusa, where the tiny local refugee centre is often badly overcrowded.
Border guards said on Tuesday they had also seized a “mother ship” and arrested 17 crew members, who are believed to be Egyptian, following a landing in the southern Calabria region on Sunday.
These larger fishing vessels are often used by smugglers to carry out most of the journey and the migrants are then put on smaller boats when they are nearer the coast to evade controls.
Thousands have perished over the years as the crossings are often made on ageing vessels.
The refugee shipwreck on October 3 off Lampedusa was the country's worst ever, with 364 people killed after their 20-metre boat caught fire, capsized and sank within sight of the shore.
Just a few days later another heavily laden boat flipped over in rough seas off Malta, killing at least 36 of the Syrian refugees on board.
Italy has called for the refugee issue to be on the agenda of a summit of European Union leaders next week and wants changes to the way the Frontex EU border agency is run to deal with the emergency.
Europe's Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem has suggested Frontex, which coordinates European border management, deploy a vast maritime search-and-rescue operation from Cyprus to Spain.
But experts have questioned how easy it will be to persuade EU governments to finance such an operation or agree to a European border control, particularly in recession-hit countries or where anti-immigration sentiment is on the rise.
“Search and rescue is good in principle, but it touches on sensitivities over relinquishing control of national waters,” said Elizabeth Collett, director of Brussels-based think tank Migration Policy Institute Europe.
Collett said that beyond scaled-up patrols, Europe needed to address the more complex issues of dismantling smuggling rings and deterring people from attempting the perilous crossings.
“As the EU changes its policies, smugglers move operators and rework their business models. The focus should be on convincing immigrants it's not worth putting their lives in smugglers' hands.
“There are established routes and networks for smuggling, with cities that serve as transit points. We would need trusted interlocutors to warn immigrants in those cities,” she told AFP.
Professor Alessandra Venturini from the European University Institute Migration Policy Centre said the priority was to “stop people dying at sea.”
“Centres at transit points in Turkey and Egypt where people can make asylum requests could help reduce the numbers attempting to enter the EU illegally,” she said.
The main challenge facing governments, however, is Europe's beleaguered economy which makes it “difficult to promote an inclusive policy.”
Italy also wants a change in asylum laws that currently mean all asylum-seekers must stay in the European country where they first arrive while their application is being considered.
Southern European countries like Italy argue this puts an unfair burden on them as the landing points, but northern European states argue they end up taking in most of the refugees.
There have also been growing calls within Italy for reform of a tough immigration law that brands all irregular migrants criminal suspects and punishes anyone accused of helping their journey.