Italian coastguard faces emergency off Libyan coast as Italy closes embassy in Tripoli
The Italian coastguard rescued 2,164 migrants from a dozen different boats in a major operation off the Libyan coast on 15 February.
More than 900 migrants were rescued by Italian coastguard and customs police boats, over 500 were rescued by the Italian navy, while the rest of the migrants were taken aboard by various ships in the area.
During one part of the rescue effort, Italian search teams were threatened by gunmen who arrived by speedboat from Libya, according to Italy's transport ministry. Armed with Kalashnikov rifles, the men ordered the coastguard to return a boat that had just been emptied of migrants, before seizing the vessel and returning to Libya.
The rescue operations came the same day that Italy closed its embassy in Tripoli, amid an escalating security threat caused by two rival Libyan governments operating their own armed forces under separate parliaments.
Italian foreign minister Paolo Gentiloni expressed "grave concerns" about the activities of Islamic State (ISIS) militants in Libya, and has urged Italian citizens to "temporarily leave" the north African country situated just "200 nautical miles" from Italy.
During the week before the latest rescue effort, at least 300 migrants perished in the Mediterranean Sea. Figures released recently by the UNHCR reveal that almost 3,500 migrants lost their lives attempting to cross the Mediterranean in 2014, while more than 200,000 people were rescued during the same period.
For an insight into the worsening refugee crisis, see related article.