First migrant boat from Libya nears Italian shores

The stricken boat was carrying some 350 African migrants from Libya.

Lampedusa: A stricken boat carrying some 350 African migrants from Libya neared Italian shores on Saturday, the first such vessel to reach Europe since the start of the uprising against Muammar Gaddafi.

An Ethiopian woman gave birth on the boat on Saturday and was rescued with her newborn baby and the child`s father by an Italian Navy helicopter.

A second heavily pregnant woman who was also evacuated from the boat to a hospital on the island of Lampedusa later lost her child, medical staff said.

The first woman was airlifted from the tiny island to a hospital in Sicily and is doing well. She has named the child "Yeabsera" ("Gift of God").

Two coastguard ships have been sent out from the island to intercept the boat, which is believed to be taking on water and running with a faulty engine.

"Until now the only migrants to arrive in Lampedusa were Tunisians," said Laura Boldrini a spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency UNHCR in Italy.

"This is the first boat coming from Libya with people fleeing the military escalation, the vendettas and the retaliation attacks," she said.

She said the people on board the boat required "international protection".

Coastguards said the boat would not be taken to Lampedusa but to the nearby island of Linosa and the passengers would then be taken to a refugee centre.

Mussie Zerai, an Eritrean Catholic priest in Italy who has been in direct contact with the vessel via a satellite phone, said conditions on the boat were extremely difficult with around 10 children and 20 women on board.

He said the people were mostly Eritreans, Ethiopians and Somalians.

The boat was assisted on Friday by a Canadian warship taking part in a mission by the NATO alliance to enforce a naval arms embargo on Libya.

"They`re taking on water. They`re having trouble throwing out the water. The pumping system that the Canadians gave them is not working," Zerai said.

David Taylor, a spokesman for the NATO embargo mission based in Naples, said: "We are monitoring the situation very closely and confidently."

Zerai said that the boat arriving in Italy had left Tripoli in the night between Thursday and Friday. He said four or five other boats carrying African migrants had also left Libyan shores carrying around 1,000 people.

"They told me the (Libyan) military are asking them to leave," he said.

Italy and Libya signed a friendship treaty in 2008 which Italian authorities say led to a 94-percent decrease in illegal immigration to Italy but was heavily criticised by human rights groups for the treatment of migrants.

The Italian government has suspended the treaty and warns it now fears hundreds of thousands of migrants could depart for Italy if Gaddafi`s regime falls. Italy has requested increased assistance from the European Union.

Gaddafi himself has threatened to send "millions" of migrants to Europe.

More than 15,000 mostly Tunisian migrants have landed on Lampedusa in rickety fishing boats since the ouster of Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January and hundreds more are arriving every day.

More than 1,000 migrants arrived on the island on Saturday alone including 69 who were rescued from a sinking boat by a fishing trawler.

There were chaotic scenes when three boats carrying some 600 migrants arrived in the port, with security forces deployed to prevent a crowd of migrants already on the island from surging towards them.

The charity Save the Children said around 250 Tunisian children are still on the island, which is closer to North Africa than to mainland Italy.

More than 250 other children -- most of them teenagers -- have been taken to special care homes in other parts of Italy in recent weeks.

Ninety-six of the children were transferred to an abandoned US Coast Guard base on Lampedusa on Saturday after Save the Children said the conditions in which they had been living on the island were unacceptable.

The island is struggling to cope with all the recent arrivals and hundreds of migrants have been sleeping out in the open because of a lack of space.

"We believe it is necessary for transit centres to be set up for children to ensure acceptable living conditions while they wait to be installed in communities," Raffaella Milano of Save the Children said in a statement.

Bureau Report

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