AFP - Italian coast guards and local fisherman saved all 500 refugees on a boat from Libya early Sunday after their vessel hit rocks off the island of Lampedusa, an operation one rescuer described as a "miracle".
Refugees threw themselves into the water in the night, with some clinging to ropes strung between the rusty fishing boat and the shoreline by rescuers, as officers and local residents dived in to help along the rocky coast.
"There were about 500 people on board. It was a difficult situation. Our patrol boats couldn't come close because of the shallow water and the undertow was very strong," said Antonio Morana, a coast guard spokesman.
Many refugees including women and children were later seen wrapped in thermal blankets on the shore, according to footage released by coast guards.
"The sea was rough and it was pushing the boat towards the coast," said one coast guard, Davide Miserendino.
"When the first immigrants jumped into the water, we immediately dived in to try and rescue as many as possible," he added.
"When we finished, to be honest, we burst out crying and embracing. We all thought about those children in the sea. It was incredible. It was a real miracle that we managed to rescue everyone," he said.
"We managed to save all the passengers. We believe there were no victims," Vittorio Alessandro, another coast guard official, told AFP.
Coast guards said local fishermen also helped rescue some of the refugees and the whole operation was lit up by beams from nearby boats.
Local residents brought food and clothes for the survivors and a Ghanaian woman with a baby called Wisdom was given diapers and toys.
Most of those on board were migrant workers from sub-Saharan Africa and Asia who have been living in Libya. Thousands of refugees fleeing Libya have been arriving in Lampedusa in recent weeks as the conflict there has escalated.
"The bombs forced us to flee. Right now the situation in Libya doesn't leave us any choice," a Pakistani refugee was quoted by ANSA news agency as saying.
Lampedusa, which measures 20 square kilometres (eight square miles), is Italy's southernmost point and is closer to North Africa than to the mainland.
Alessandro said the boat had been headed for Malta escorted by the Maltese coast guard but then changed route and went towards Lampedusa.
"As it was coming towards the port of Lampedusa, it suddenly veered towards some rocks. There was major panic on board," he said.
A few of the refugees suffered slight injuries and have been hospitalised.
Morana said an investigation was underway into what had gone wrong but he believed there had been "a malfunctioning of the rudder" on the vessel.
Also Sunday, another boat carrying 800 refugees from Libya arrived in Lampedusa, a day after two boats with 842 refugees including 101 women and 22 children also fleeing the North African state landed there.
The refugees who arrived on Saturday were ferried to the mainland later on Sunday, leaving around 2,500 migrants and refugees still on the island.
Lampedusa has received more than 30,000 migrant and refugee arrivals since the start of the year.
Most of them are Tunisians in search of a better life in Europe amid continued upheaval in their homeland in the wake of a revolt in January.
Some 150 refugees fleeing Libya are believed to have died on April 6 after their boat capsized in stormy weather in the middle of the Mediterranean. Italian coast guards managed to pluck 53 survivors from the sea.
A week later, two women died and another person was reported missing after their overcrowded boat hit rocks on the Italian island of Pantelleria.