ABOARD THE GOLFO AZZURRO/ROME (Reuters) - A four day-old baby was one of over 480 migrants rescued by humanitarian ships on Saturday during search and rescue operations in the central Mediterranean Sea.
The baby was traveling on one of two rubber boats carrying over 200 migrants from North and Central Africa, Sri Lanka and Yemen and seen drifting some 22 nautical miles north of the Libyan town of Sabratha, the most frequently used departure point currently used by people smugglers in Libya.
The operation was carried out by Spanish NGO Proactiva Open arms and lasted three hours. Migrants were transferred into the former fishing trawler Golfo Azzurro, expected to reach the Sicilian port town of Augusta on Sunday afternoon.
The other rescued migrants, on board two other rubber boats, were rescued by staff on the supply vessel Vos Prudence, a spokesperson for the Coast Guard told Reuters.
Those migrants were due to reach Italy on Monday, but the destination is still unknown, the Coast Guard added.
"A week ago, I collected a dead body from the Mediterranean for the first time, and (Saturday) I carried a new life," Daniel Calvelo, the 26 year-old who transferred the baby from the raft into the rescue boat, told Reuters.
The baby's mother, a 29-year old Nigerian woman, and her husband, a 34-year old worker from Ghana, were also rescued. They had lived in Libya for over two years and decided to leave for Europe after they had the baby.
"We want to go to France or Germany, there is a future for our family there," Richard Ohene, the father, told Reuters.
Italy has become the main arrival point in Europe for people fleeing persecution and poverty in Africa, most of them crossing the Mediterranean from lawless Libya in search of a better life.
Nearly 600 migrants have died so far this year trying to reach Italy from North Africa, the International Migration Organization (IOM) estimates. Some 4,600 people are thought to have died last year.
In all, 181,000 migrants reached Italy in 2016, about half of the total who arrived in the European Union by sea.
(Reporting by Yannis Behrakis; Additional reporting and writing by Giulia Segreti; Editing by Tom Heneghan)