Over 800 migrants saved in Italy, northern Cyprus

The coastguard said it picked up 520 migrants in the Strait of Sicily between Thursday night and Friday.

FILE: More than 900 illegal migrants are shipped to the mainland after being rescued by Italian Navy boat 'Fregata Euro' in the Mediterranean Sea, 12 September 2014. Picture: EPA.

ROME/NICOSIA - Italy's coastguard said it has rescued more than 600 migrants in the Mediterranean Sea between Sicily and North Africa this weekend and started a search for one man feared drowned during the passage.

Further east, 270 Syrian refugees were rescued off Turkish-Cypriot controlled northern Cyprus overnight when their ship's engine broke down, the Kibris Postasi website in Nicosia reported.

The Italian coastguard said it picked up 520 migrants in the Strait of Sicily between Thursday night and Friday, before heading to a point 60 miles north of the Libyan capital Tripoli to assist a merchant ship that had picked up 93 migrants.

A ship carrying a Singaporean flag picked up a further 78 migrants, the coast guard said. It was not immediately clear where these migrants came from.

The ship carrying Syrian refugees was drifting for several hours before it was towed to northern Cyprus and the refugees, including 30 children, were brought to an indoor sports stadium, Kibris Postasi reported.

It was thought to have sailed from the Turkish port of Mersin and the website quoted a transport official saying the migrants would be sent back there. Turkish officials had no immediate comment.

Italy said last month it would close its "Mare Nostrum" mission that saved more than 100,000 migrants coming to Europe fleeing war, poverty and human rights abuses in Africa.

Twenty-one European Union countries are contributing to a smaller mission called Triton, overseen by border control agency Frontex, which will patrol 30 nautical miles from Italy's coast.

The Mare Nostrum naval mission started a year ago after more than 360 people, mostly Eritreans, drowned when their boat capsized a mile from the southern Italian island of Lampedusa.

The €114 million cost of the year-long mission prompted calls from right-wing politicians for the money to be spent on dragging Italy's economy out of a three-year recession.

Cyprus, about 96 km west of Syria, is rarely the destination of choice for thousands fleeing the war-ravaged country. It is split into a breakaway Turkish Cypriot state in the north and an internationally recognised republic in the south.

Turkey is currently hosting an estimated 1.6 million Syrians who have fled the bloodletting, many of whom live in refugee camps or eke out a harsh existence in Turkish cities.