Italy's navy has rescued more than 4,000 migrants from overcrowded boats in the Mediterranean Sea south of Sicily in the past four days and several other rescue operations are still going on, officials said on Friday.
This week's warm spring weather has brought calm seas and an surge in new arrivals. Most migrants pay more than $1,000 to criminal gangs in increasingly chaotic Libya to make the crossing to Italy — and the European Union — that killed hundreds last year.
Two suspected people smugglers were taken into police custody when the amphibious assault ship San Giusto and another Italian naval ship arrived in the Sicilian port of Augusta near Syracuse on Friday with more than 1,500 migrants rescued at sea.
While on patrol, the San Giusto picked up one dead refugee and rescued two in critical condition, naval spokesman Captain Mario Mattesi told Reuters.
"The rescue operations have been reinforced from five to eight ships and all are operating in the area of interest," between Sicily and Libya, Mattesi said.
"The dead man and the two others all showed signs of probable carbon dioxide poisoning and burns from the petrol that was aboard the raft. One of the men was resuscitated on the San Giusto after being rescued," he added.
Italy is a major gateway into Europe for migrants arriving by sea from North Africa and sea arrivals more than tripled in 2013 from the previous year, fuelled by Syria's civil war and strife in the Horn of Africa.
In October, at least 366 Eritreans drowned in a shipwreck near the shore of the Italian island of Lampedusa, which is located about halfway between Sicily and Tunisia. More than 200, mostly Syrians, died in another shipwreck a week later.
(Reporting by Steve Scherer and Cristiano Corvo; Editing by Tom Heneghan)