ROME — Italian coast guard and navy ships, aided by Irish and German vessels as well as humanitarian organizations, saved 668 migrants from smugglers' boats in distress in the Mediterranean off Libya on Saturday, Italian and Irish officials said.
The rescues are the latest by a multi-national patrol south of Sicily that has saved thousands this week.
The Irish military said the vessel Le Roisin, deployed earlier this month in the humanitarian search and rescue mission, saved 123 migrants from a 12-meter-long (40-foot) rubber dinghy and recovered a male body. A German ship, part of the EUNAVFORMED deployment on patrol for migrant smugglers' boats, also was involved in what was a total of four separate rescue operations, the Italian coast guard said in a statement early Saturday evening.
Meanwhile, with migrant shelters filling up in Sicily, the Italian navy vessel Vega headed toward Reggio Calabria, a southern Italian mainland port, bringing 135 survivors, along with 45 bodies, from a rescue a day earlier. The Vega was due to dock on Sunday.
Under a European Union deal, tens of thousands of those rescued at sea and seeking asylum were supposed to be relocated to other EU nations from Italy and Greece, whose shores have received most of the migrants in recent years. But with resentment building in some European countries about taking in migrants, the plan never really took off, and only a small percentage of those slated for relocation have actually been moved.
At the Vatican on Saturday, Pope Francis told several hundred children, among them many migrants, who came from the Italian south to see him that migrants "aren't a danger but they are in danger."
The pontiff held a red life vest, given to him recently be a volunteer, and told the children it was the vest used by a Syrian girl who died while trying to reach the Greek island of Lesbos. "She's in heaven, she's watching us," Francis told his young audience.
Among those in the audience was a Nigerian youth, who lost his parents in 2014 as the family tried to reach Italy by sea. Francis has repeatedly expressed dismay that some European nations have refused to accept migrants, fleeing poverty or war, and have even thrown up fences and other barriers to thwart the arrivals from journeying northward after reaching the continent's southern shores.
In France, an Afghan migrant died after being hit by a truck near the coastal city of Calais.
Pas-de-Calais region Secretary-General Marc Del Grande said the 25-year-old was hit while he and about 50 other migrants were laying branches on the highway in an effort to slow traffic. Migrants gathered in Calais routinely try to hop aboard trucks in an effort to sneak into Britain, which lies just across the English Channel.