ROME: A boat carrying some 500 refugees from Libya ran aground as it neared an Italian port today, forcing many of those on board to jump into the sea, officials said after all were successfully rescued.
The boat hit some rocks on the approach to the island of Lampedusa in southern Italy, sparking panic among those on board — most of them migrant workers from sub-Saharan Africa and Asia who had been living in Libya.
Coast guards immediately intervened, plucking dozens from the water including women and children and rescuing those still on board.
Television images showed chaotic scenes as refugees clung on to ropes cast between the shoreline and the fishing boat and officers dived in to help.
“There were about 500 people on board. It was a difficult situation. Our patrol boats couldn’t come close because of the shallow water,” Mr Antonio Morana, a coast guard spokesperson, said after the pre-dawn incident.
Another coast guard official, Mr Vittorio Alessandro, said: “We managed to save all the passengers. We believe there were no victims.”
Alessandro said the boat had been headed for Malta escorted by the Maltese coast guard but then changed route and went towards Lampedusa.
“As it was coming towards the port of Lampedusa, it suddenly veered towards some rocks. There was major panic on board,” he said.
A few of the refugees suffered slight injuries and have been hospitalised.
Asked what went wrong, Mr Morana said an investigation was underway but he believed there had been “a malfunctioning of the rudder” on the vessel.
In the images broadcast on Italian news channel SkyTG24 the rusty boat could be seen listing badly, with some refugees gripping its sides.
Also today, another boat carrying 800 refugees from Libya arrived in Lampedusa, a day after two boats with 842 refugees including 101 women and 22 children also fleeing from the North African state landed on the island.
Lampedusa has seen more than 30,000 migrant and refugee arrivals since the start of the year, most of them Tunisians in search of a better life in Europe amid continued upheaval in their homeland in the wake of a revolt in January.