European Union leaders are due to hold an emergency summit on ways to stem the number of migrants risking their lives trying to cross the Mediterranean. The leaders, who decided last year to halt the rescue of migrants, will vote to reverse their decision on Thursday after nearly 2,000 people died at sea this year.
Public outrage over the deaths peaked this week after about 800 migrants died last Sunday when their boat sank on its way to Europe from Libya.
That has raised the death toll to around 1,800 so far this year, compared to fewer than 100 who died before the end of April last year, when a similar number attempted the journey.
Rescue operations continued on Wednesday, with Italy's coastguard saying it had rescued 220 migrants taken from two large rubber boats about 65km from the Libyan coast. Another 545, most of them without even a pair of shoes, were taken to Salerno, just south of Naples. A further 446, mostly of Egyptian, Syrian, Sudanese, Somali and Eritrean origin, arrived in eastern Sicily after being rescued from a fishing boat.
Aid organisations are assessing their health and trying "to find out whether all [of] these children have travelled with their parents - or are alone", our correspondent reported. "We've seen hundreds of young men, but also many women and young children. They have risked everything to come here. Yet the government here in Italy, and governments across Europe, are desperate to stop this kind of migration."
Italy shut down the mission that saved the lives of more than 100,000 migrants last year because other EU countries refused to pay for it. It was replaced with a smaller EU scheme whose main focus is to patrol the bloc's borders, after countries argued that saving migrants encouraged more to come.
The peak migration season of late spring and summer has barely begun, with international organisations estimating tens of thousands of African and Asian migrants likely to attempt the journey per month, mostly from Libya. Last year the death toll eventually reached 3,200.
The leaders are likely to agree in Brussels to double the cash and equipment available to two EU border patrol missions in the Mediterranean, a senior EU diplomat told the Reuters news agency. Many EU countries still believe search and rescue operations alone will not solve the problem, and more must be done to fight traffickers, who have taken advantage of lawlessness in Libya to set up operations that spirited 170,000 migrants across the sea last year.
One proposal the leaders will discuss is a military and civilian mission to capture and destroy the traffickers' boats. The leaders will also discuss a pilot project to resettle 5,000 to 10,000 refugees from Mediterranean countries to other EU states, the senior diplomat told Reuters. The United Nations estimates 36,000 have made the voyage so far this year.