ROME — Italy pressed the European Union on Wednesday to devise concrete, robust steps to stop the deadly tide of migrants on smugglers' boats in the Mediterranean, including considering military intervention against traffickers and strengthening the presence of U.N. refugee offices in countries bordering Libya and elsewhere in Africa.
"We know where the smugglers keep their boats, where they gather," Italian Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti told Sky TG24 TV in an interview. "The plans for military intervention are there."
Libyan shores are the most frequent launching spots for the smugglers' boats.
Pinotti said Italy was willing to take the helm of any military intervention if asked and as long as it is carried out as an international mission, backed by the United Nations.
"We're ready to do our share," she said. "We're the closest country to Libya."
Pinotti was speaking a day before EU leaders hold an emergency summit in Brussels called in the wake of a shipwreck off Libya last weekend which authorities believe may have killed more than 800 migrants. It would be the highest known loss of migrants' lives in a single incident in the Mediterranean.
In the latest arrival of migrants, an Italian naval vessel docked in the Sicilian port of Augusta with 446 people who had been rescued from a smugglers' boat on Tuesday off the southern coast of the Italian mainland. The navy said 59 of the migrants are children.
Pinotti said she was cautiously hopeful that the EU summit on Thursday, solicited by Italy, would take tangible steps to deal with the migrant crisis. Hundreds of migrants have been arriving on Italian shores, after being rescued at sea when their rickety and overloaded boats run into problems.
"We think it's the moment in which Europe decides, forcefully, to have an international police operation, which will undo this band of criminals," Pinotti said. She spoke as Premier Matteo Renzi addressed lawmakers.
The crisis worsened dramatically with last weekend's capsizing of a boat loaded with hundreds of migrants, many of them locked in the hold by their smugglers.
Renzi urged the European Union to swiftly craft long-range, comprehensive policy on the migrants.
"When a person has to risk his life because he needs to escape from a situation where they are chopping off the heads of those near him, you cannot discourage departures with a generic statement," the premier said. "You can do it by putting the (U.N.) High Commissioner for Refugees in Niger, Sudan" and elsewhere in Africa.
A group of Ethiopian Christians was seen being shot or beheaded in a video this week released by the extremist group Islamic State.
Italian media reports this week said Italian government officials were considering proposing the setting up of refugee camps, under U.N. auspices, in Niger, Tunisia and Sudan, so that migrants' applications for refugee status could be examined there. Renzi didn't specify if camps would be an option, but stressed involvement of U.N. refugee offices in countries near Libya.
Pinotti indicated that if requests for asylum were processed in Africa, all EU countries could take a share of the migrants found eligible for refugee status or asylum.
She urged "sharing and co-responsibility." The migrants "all can't arrive in Italy," she said.
Italy has saved about 200,000 migrant lives at sea since the start of 2014. But Renzi said Italy's "noble, generous reaction alone isn't enough."
"We are asking Europe to be Europe, not just when it's time to devise a budget," Renzi said.
He said broad, long-term EU strategy, including wider sea patrols, could help combat "21st-century slave drivers" of migrants. He also called for a robust presence of "international organizations" in the southern part of Libya.
Pinotti, the Italian defense minister, warned that the flow of migrants isn't about to stop, saying "90 percent are from Nigeria, Ethiopia, Somalia, from places where they are afraid of dying. We cannot stop them" from leaving their homelands.
Since Italy is the first EU country where the boat migrants set foot, they stay in reception centers, sometimes for years, while their requests or appeals for asylum are processed.
Migrants deemed ineligible for asylum are ordered expelled, but many slip away and head to northern Europe, to reach relatives.