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Cyprus saves nearly 500 migrants at sea

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In two separate operations, 477 migrants that departed from Lebanon were rescued off the coast of Cyprus in 24 hours, the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre (JRCC) said.

In one operation, it responded to a distress call from an 18-meter wooden boat crammed with over 300 people on board, which was drifting about 203 kilometres off the west coast.

A statement said the centre’s Larnaca HQ received the call at 7 pm on Monday.

The boat was experiencing engine trouble.

After a helicopter spotted the boat, two navy vessels and a marine police patrol boat were dispatched to the area.

All ships sailing nearby were asked to help in the rescue operation.

“The weather in the region was bad, but fortunately, a Russian-owned cargo vessel registered in the Marshal Islands was very close and responded to the call.

“It took aboard all the passengers from the boat in distress,” JRCC said.

The cargo vessel’s captain was asked to take the migrants to Limassol, but he followed his company’s instructions and headed to his original destination, Istanbul.

The boat had departed from Lebanon three days prior and was trying to reach Italy with many women and children aboard.

A second rescue operation was mounted in the early hours of Tuesday after a distress call, also citing engine trouble, was received from a boat drifting with 177 people on board about 56 kilometres off Larnaca.

A spokesperson said the two navy ships returning from the first rescue operation and a marine police vessel were diverted to the area.

In the late afternoon, the rescue boats docked at Larnaca, where civil defence and medical staff cared for the exhausted migrants.

All were said to be in good health and transferred to a migrant reception centre.

The migrants – including 67 women and children – told authorities they had sailed from Lebanon and headed for Italy.

Once a country that received refugees, Lebanon has become a launching pad for dangerous migration by sea to Europe.

As the country’s economic crisis deepened, more Lebanese, Syrian, and Palestinian refugees have set off to sea, with security agencies reporting almost weekly foiled migration attempts.