By Staff Reporter
The Italian coastguard has rescued more than 2,000 migrants in a major operation off the Libyan coast, officials say.
During the rescue, search teams were threatened by Kalashnikov-wielding men who approached in a speedboat from Libya, Italian officials said.
Last week, at least 300 migrants perished in the Mediterranean Sea.
They were travelling in dinghies that ran into trouble during stormy weather after leaving the coast of Libya.
On Friday another 600 migrants were rescued about 50 miles (80km) off the coast of the North African country.
The latest rescue effort on Sunday involved a plane, four coastguard ships, two tugboats and a navy vessel, according to the AFP news agency.
Local media reported that the migrants had been aboard 12 boats and had been taken to Italy.
According to Italy’s transport ministry, four men with Kalashnikov rifles sped out from the Libyan shore during the rescue and ordered the coastguard to return a boat that had been emptied of migrants.
Some of the gunmen then jumped onto the boat and took off with it, added Transport Minister Maurizio Lupi.
The UNHCR says almost 3,500 people died attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe in 2014, making it the world’s most dangerous sea crossing for migrants trying to enter the European Union.
More than 200,000 people were rescued during the same period.
Many were plucked from the sea as a result of an Italian operation known as Mare Nostrum, which was launched in October 2013 in response to a tragedy near Lampedusa in which 366 migrants died.
That operation has now ended, leading the UNHCR to warn EU leaders to expect more deaths.
Some European countries, including the UK, have said a rescue service for migrants could encourage refugees to continue making the crossing.
The EU now runs a border control operation with fewer ships, called Triton, which only covers waters close to Europe’s coast.