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Italy reports 900 migrants rescued at sea

In this picture released by the Italian navy on April 10, 2014 immigrants stand on a boat during a rescue operation off the coast of Sicily on October 30, 2013
In this picture released by the Italian navy on April 10, 2014 immigrants stand on a boat during a rescue operation off the coast of Sicily on October 30, 2013

Italy has rescued 896 migrants crossing the Mediterranean by boat overnight, the navy said on Friday, after the government warned of an "emergency" caused by a surge in new arrivals.

Three navy warships and two coast guard patrol boats took on the migrants in the Mediterranean and they were then transferred to other vessels and taken to ports in Sicily, the navy said in a statement.

In Geneva, the UN refugee agency UNHCR estimated 6,000 people had been rescued by the Italian navy from over 40 overcrowded boats in the past four days.

UNHCR spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said the migrants had set off from northern Libya "and many were fleeing violence, conflict and persecution".

"Main countries of origin include Syria, Eritrea, Somalia, Nigeria, Gambia, Mali and Senegal," she said.

Syrians made up the highest number landing in Italy in 2013 with over 11,300 arrivals reported.

The anti-immigration Northern League, a small but vociferous opposition party, has called for migrants to be sent back and, along with a series of far-right parties, accuses the government of failing to act.

Interior Minister Angelino Alfano has appealed for more assistance from the European Union but migrant rights campaigners say the real fault is with failures in Italy's immigration and asylum system.

Activists say Italy's immigration centres are full and asylum-seekers are being put up in temporary or private facilities like hotels which are not offering adequate assistance to the new arrivals.