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Irish Navy saves 601 desperate migrants from treacherous Med

IRISH Naval Service sailors have saved 601 desperate migrants in three separate daring rescue operations off the coast of Libya.

The crew of the LE Eithne came to the rescue of around 100 migrants on a rubber dinghy at 9.45am this morning. Hours earlier, they also rescued 300 migrants on a barge some 45km north of Libya.

It was the third rescue operation for the crew within 24 hours. Yesterday, they successfully transferred 201 migrants over to the HMS Bulwark for transport to the nearest safe Italian port.

All 300 rescued this morning received water, food and medical attention.

A total of 217 of the migrants are male, 35 are female and 48 are minors. Sea conditions for the rescue operations were calm at the time.

It's just under two weeks since the naval flagship vessel left Ireland as part of the European response to the refugee crisis that has seen thousands drown in recent months.

Defence Minister Simon Coveney last night praised the captain, Commander Pearse O'Donnell, and his 69-strong crew for providing an "invaluable asset" in the "important humanitarian mission".

"I think people can be very proud that Ireland is making a real and practical contribution," he said.

The rescue operations began yesterday morning after the LE Eithne was tasked by Italian authorities with saving the migrants who were spotted in a flotilla of five flimsy boats about 60km from the coast of Libya.

The operation was carried out with cooperation from Italian, German and British ships.

"At 8am (Irish time) the LE Eithne received notification from the Italian Marine Rescue Coordination Centre and the Italian Task Force Commander of five inflatable crafts crossing the Mediterranean," a Defence Forces spokesperson said.

"The crew ... came to the migrants' assistance giving them food, water and first aid at the scene.

"The rescuees will in turn be transported to a port of safety in Italy," the spokesperson added.

There were 88 people crammed onto the first vessel approached by the Irish naval personnel in a rigid inflatable boat launched boat from the larger ship.

Life-jackets were thrown to the migrants in the makeshift boats before they were brought to safety on the LE Eithne.

There has been a surge in people attempting to cross the Mediterranean to start new lives in Europe amid the chaos in Libya after hated dictator Muammar Gaddafi was ousted in 2011.

Migrants fleeing wars and poverty in Africa are gathering there and paying ruthless people smugglers for the dangerous passage to Italy on barely seaworthy fishing boats and inflatable vessels.

As of the start of this month at least 1,750 people have died making the desperate journey this year alone, the latest figures show.

A staggering 6,500 men, women and children were rescued by European ships in one two-day period in April alone.