A baby, several women, and children were among 201 migrants crammed into five flimsy inflatable vessels who were rescued by Naval Service flagship LÉ Eithne 60km north of Libya.
Navy sources said the weather had been poor in the Mediterranean for several days and it came as no surprise when it lifted yesterday that migrants tried to make a run for the Italian coast.
The navy ship had been lying off Lampedusa island — where hundreds of migrants have drowned in recent years trying to gain access to Southern Europe — when it responded to a report that the inflatables had been spotted 60km off the coast of north Libya.
The alarm was raised at 8am Irish time by the Italian Marine Rescue Co-ordination Centre and the Italian taskforce commander. It took two hours for LÉ Eithne to steam to the scene.
The migrants were transferred to the ship via rigid inflatable boats, where they were given first aid and food.
They were later transferred to HMS Bulwark, one of Britain’s newest amphibious transport vessels, which took the migrants on to the safety of an Italian port.
It was the first time the naval service has been involved in a humanitarian mission.
It is estimated that since the start of the year more than 1,700 migrants have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea in attempts to escape North Africa for a better life in Italy, Greece, or Malta. The UN believes that, in the last five months alone, 60,000 migrants have attempted the crossing, often crammed into flimsy, unsuitable boats.
LÉ Eithne left her base in Haulbowline last Saturday on a 2,500km journey to the area.
Its 70-strong crew, under the command of Commander Pearse O’Donnell, have continually practised scenarios to assist unseaworthy or sinking boats and then bring the rescued onboard. Its helicopter flight deck has been modified to enable it to host as many migrants as possible.
If a migrant ship is spotted in LÉ Eithne’s area of operations, it will immediately be tasked with boarding it.
LÉ Eithne can also act independently and decide on her own to board a vessel, especially if it is deemed to be unseaworthy.
The naval service says its primary task is to save lives.
It is intended that LÉ Eithne will stay in the Mediterranean for two months, after which time she is likely to be relieved by another naval service vessel.
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