'Syrians and Egyptians' among migrants reaching Italy

An Italian coast guard talks to African migrants aboard a boat off Lampedusa, 9 August These African migrants were found by Italian coast guards off Lampedusa

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Syrians and Egyptians are reported to be among nearly 700 migrants who arrived illegally by boat in southern Italy in the space of 24 hours.

In one boat, coast guards found 176 people, including 41 women and 73 children, who said they were from the two countries, Italian media report.

Each had reportedly paid at least $2,000 (£1,290; 1,500 euros) to people traffickers for the two-week journey.

African migrants rescued separately said two people had died at sea.

EU states such as Malta are struggling to cope with the migrant influx.

On Tuesday, the country refused to accept a group of African migrants rescued by an oil tanker en route from Libya, before Italy stepped in to allow them to land in Sicily.

The European Commission had tried to persuade Malta to accept the migrants on humanitarian grounds but Malta argued they were not in danger and should have been taken back to Libya.

About 7,800 illegal migrants and asylum seekers landed on the coast of Italy in the first six months of this year, according to the UN refugee agency.

They had mostly departed from North Africa - from Libya in the main - but also from Greece and Turkey.

Hospital treatment

The group of 176 migrants rescued by Italian coast guards on Thursday were given accommodation in Portopalo, a town near the city of Syracuse, the local newspaper Siracusa News reports.

Several pregnant women among the group were taken to hospital.

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On Wednesday night, a group of 100 migrants, said to be Syrians, was rescued from a boat and taken to Calabria, on the Italian mainland close to Sicily.

The group included 16 women and 44 children, and they too had reportedly been travelling for two weeks, since leaving Syria.

In the period between Wednesday night and Thursday afternoon, a total of about 400 mainly African migrants were rescued from three boats off southern Italy, most of them off the island of Lampedusa.

Migrants aboard one boat said two people, including a child of seven, had died on board in the scorching heat.

The new arrivals came shortly after Italy took in 102 migrants rejected by Malta, who arrived in Syracuse aboard the tanker Salamis.

Malta, the EU's smallest member-state, took in some 200 other boat migrants this week.

In its report on Mediterranean crossings, the UN refugee agency notes that Syrians and Egyptians have previously been found trying to enter Europe by boat. However, most such migrants have their origin in sub-Saharan Africa, and the Horn of Africa in particular.

Syria has been wracked by a bloody civil war for more than two years while Egypt has suffered from political instability and a weak economy in the same period.

Migrants arriving clandestinely by boat in EU states are assessed to see whether they have genuine grounds for seeking asylum in Europe.

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