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French ship rescues 217 migrants off Libya coast

On Saturday, the French patrol ship turned the rescued migrants and the suspected people smugglers over to the Italian authorities.

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Migrants from Africa, Afghanistan and Syria queue for an evening meal at the Jules Ferry day center in Calais, France, April 29, 2015. African migrants principally from Eritrea and Sudan gather in this northern French port city after they travelled from the Mediterranean northwards in the hopes of crossing the English Channel and seeking asylum in Britain. After up to 900 people drowned trying to reach Europe from Libya last week, EU leaders tripled a naval search mission in the Mediterranean to try to prevent record numbers of people drowning as they try to flee war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa.

REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

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A French patrol ship rescued 217 migrants from three small boats that had run into trouble off the coast of Libya on Saturday, the maritime police said in a statement.

The Commandant Birot helped several dozen people in distress and intercepted two suspected people smugglers, according to the statement.

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"The intercepted vessels have all been neutralized," the maritime police said, adding that they were responding to a call from the maritime rescue coordination center in Rome as part of the European Union's operation Triton.

The rescued migrants and the suspected people smugglers have been handed over to the Italian authorities, the Toulon, France-based maritime police added.

The sea is one of the main routes into the European Union for tens of thousands of mostly Asian and African migrants fleeing war and poverty, with almost 40,000 people having arrived this year already.

A migrant boat sank with the loss of more than 700 lives last month, raising pressure for action by EU countries, who pledged to step up search and rescue operations in the southern Mediterranean.

As The Christian Science Monitor reported some European leaders are mulling drastic action – military strikes on the traffickers who organize the voyages.

But despite the integral role of the people-smugglers in facilitating the risky, even deadly, trips across the Mediterranean, military action against them and their boats and storehouses is not likely to solve the humanitarian crisis, analysts say. Rather, it will only increase the danger to refugees, either by exposing them directly to the dangers of combat or by trapping them within the chaos of Libya's civil war.

“As long as legal and safe channels of access to the EU are not established, these people will continue to brave the sea in search of protection and a better life, and the bodies will continue to pile up on Europe’s border,” says Karim Lahidji, the president of the International Federation for Human Rights, a human rights group representing 178 nongovernmental organizations from nearly 120 countries.

(editing by Ralph Boulton)