Irish Navy saves 201 desperate migrants from treacherous Med
IRISH Naval Service sailors have saved 201 desperate migrants in a daring rescue operation off the coast of Libya.
The migrants - including children and a baby - were clinging to five makeshift inflatable boats as they attempted to cross the Mediterranean to Europe.
They were rescued by the crew of the LE Eithne just under two weeks after it left Ireland as part of the European response to the refugee crisis that has seen thousands drown in recent months.
Defence Minister Simon Coveney last night praised the captain, Commander Pearse O'Donnell, and his 69-strong crew for providing an "invaluable asset" in the "important humanitarian mission".
"I think people can be very proud that Ireland is making a real and practical contribution," he said.
The operation began yesterday morning after the LE Eithne was tasked by Italian authorities with saving the migrants who were spotted in a flotilla of five flimsy boats about 60km from the coast of Libya.
The operation was carried out with cooperation from Italian, German and British ships.
"At 8am (Irish time) the LE Eithne received notification from the Italian Marine Rescue Coordination Centre and the Italian Task Force Commander of five inflatable crafts crossing the Mediterranean," a Defence Forces spokesperson said.
"The crew ... came to the migrants' assistance giving them food, water and first aid at the scene.
"The rescuees will be transferred to the HMS Bulwark where they will in turn be transported to a port of safety in Italy," the spokesperson added.
There were 88 people crammed onto the first vessel approached by the Irish naval personnel in a rigid inflatable boat launched boat from the larger ship.
Life-jackets were thrown to the migrants in the makeshift boats before they were brought to safety on the LE Eithne.
There has been a surge in people attempting to cross the Mediterranean to start new lives in Europe amid the chaos in Libya after hated dictator Muammar Gaddafi was ousted in 2011.
Migrants fleeing wars and poverty in Africa are gathering there and paying ruthless people smugglers for the dangerous passage to Italy on barely seaworthy fishing boats and inflatable vessels.
As of the start of this month at least 1,750 people have died making the desperate journey this year alone.
A staggering 6,500 men, women and children were rescued by European ships in one two-day period in April alone.
After crisis EU talks the Irish Government agreed to take in 300 migrants here.
The LE Eithne will spend around eight weeks in the Mediterranean.
As it set out earlier this month, Taoiseach Enda Kenny said Ireland "will never forget the 19th Century famine coffin ships".
He said the terrible plight of refugees is etched into the very DNA of all Irish people.