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Baby drowns during migrant rescue operation off Italy's Lampedusa

By Alvise Armellini and Federico Maccioni

ROME (Reuters) -A five-month-old baby boy drowned during a rescue operation off the Italian island of Lampedusa after a boat carrying migrants across the sea from North Africa capsized, ANSA and other Italian news agencies reported on Wednesday.

The tragedy occurred as migrant landings on Lampedusa surged, leaving the small island struggling to cope.

About 1,850 new arrivals landed on Wednesday, bringing the total number of migrants in Lampedusa to more than 6,700, ANSA said.

The boat the baby was travelling on capsized shortly before it was intercepted by the Italian coastguard. All other passengers were rescued, including the baby's mother, a teenager from Guinea, ANSA said.

The migrants had set off from the Tunisian city of Sfax, a well-known launchpad for sea journeys to Europe.

Lampedusa, Italy's southernmost point and a first port of call for people crossing from North Africa, has long been a flashpoint in Europe's migration crisis.

Most of those staying there were being hosted at the island's reception centre, which has an official capacity of around 400. Skirmishes between police and hundreds of migrants trying to leave the island erupted on the docks and during the distribution of meals by aid workers but were quickly quelled, ANSA said.

Overall, about 123,860 boat migrants have arrived in Italy since the start of the year, the latest interior ministry data showed. The figure is almost double what was recorded in the same period of 2022.On current trends, arrivals are near the peak recorded in 2016, when about 181,500 sea migrants arrived in Italy. In January-August of that year, there were about 115,000 landings, compared to 114,526 in the same period of 2023.

Footage from Tuesday showed queues of flimsy boats, packed with migrants, all waiting to dock at Lampedusa's port.

Prosecutor Giovanni Di Leo said 112 vessels had arrived on Tuesday, carrying more than 5,000 migrants, nearly double the previous record of 63 boats registered on one day last month.

"We are all tired and exhausted both physically and psychologically, the situation is becoming unmanageable and unsustainable," Lampedusa Mayor Filippo Mannino told the Adnkronos news agency on Wednesday.

TUNISIAN ROUTE

"What is happening in Lampedusa is that for the first time the Tunisian route has become so busy ... and it is difficult to manage compared to the Libyan route," said Flavio Di Giacomo, a spokesman for the U.N.'s International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

The much shorter trip from Tunisia was prompting more attempts to cross, especially with smaller vessels, making rescue operations more complicated, Di Giacomo said.

Worsening economic and social conditions in Tunisia have contributed to the surge.

Migrants who arrive on Lampedusa are regularly transferred to Sicily to ease overcrowding, but when arrivals surge, this cannot happen quickly enough.

On Wednesday, 1,650 were transferred to the mainland and another 3,750 were set to leave the island on Thursday, ANSA said.

Italy's Deputy Prime Minister Antonio Tajani wrote on social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter, that the government would "do whatever is necessary to help Lampedusa's residents and the migrants who continue to arrive on the island".

"This is a problem that is not only a problem of the countries that receive this influx, it's a problem of the European continent and in particular of the European Union," United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told reporters on Wednesday when asked about the situation in Lampedusa.

"There must be mechanisms of solidarity and burden-sharing that are effective in this regard."

(Reporting by Tony Colapinto, Alvise Armellini and Federico Maccioni, additional reporting by Michelle Nichols, Editing by Alison Williams, Angus MacSwan and Richard Chang)