Cast-adrift baby saved as her mum gives birth during rescue
A newborn baby girl was one of thousands of migrants brought ashore in Italy as a political row broke out over how to accommodate the ceaseless exodus of refugees streaming across the Mediterranean from Libya.
The baby came into the world on board an Italian navy ship, the Bettica, after her mother, who is Nigerian, was rescued from a boat floating off the coast of Libya yesterday.
The Italian navy, which released a photograph of the tiny girl swaddled in a white cloth, said both she and her mother were in good health.
In total, the Bettica rescued 654 migrants from four different boats, all of them sent from the coast of Libya by smuggling gangs, who are making tens of millions of pounds from trafficking desperate people fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa.
"The mother was brought on board in dramatic circumstances - her labour had already started," the navy said in a statement.
The baby was delivered by Sara Modde, a doctor with the Order of Malta, a Catholic charity that has teams of medics on board many of the search and rescue vessels operating in the Mediterranean.
The mother and her baby were among 6,770 migrants who were rescued in the Mediterranean in the space of just three days.
Vincenzo Pascale, the captain of the Italian navy ship on which the baby was born, said: "She is a beautiful baby girl who has touched everyone on board. The mother started to have contractions as soon as she was brought aboard and gave birth after eight hours.
"We made a little crib and put it next to the mother, who was worn out by the labour," he told Italian media.
Not all of them survived the crossing. Seven dead bodies were found aboard two large rubber dinghies packed with migrants, while the corpses of three others were pulled from the water.
They had apparently jumped or fallen into the sea when they saw rescue vessels approach.
Smugglers had packed people into the boats so tightly that they were unable to move their legs and many were suffering from cramp, humanitarian groups said.
The search and rescue attempt is being carried out by the Italian navy and coast guard as well as ships acting on behalf of Frontex, the European border control agency, and merchant vessels.
The EU pledged to strengthen the operation last month after a migrant boat sank with an estimated 750 people on board, including women and children.
Ireland has pledged to send a naval vessel to assist.
Britain promised to send the Royal Navy's flagship HMS Bulwark to assist in saving lives.
The ministry of defence said that its deployment had been temporarily delayed due to "ongoing" discussions with the UK's partners in the EU on how best to coordinate the operation.
The assault ship, which carries helicopters and royal marines, had been due to sail for the Mediterranean last week.
It will be supported by two UK Border Force cutters and three Royal Navy Merlin helicopters.
The large number of migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean was attributed to warm weather and calm seas, with Italy expecting up to 200,000 to arrive by the end of the year, exceeding the 170,000 who arrived last year.
Italy's network of migrant reception centres is at breaking point and regional politicians, particularly in the northern strongholds of the anti-immigrant Northern League, are in revolt over accommodating the new arrivals.
"In a few days I'll be in Rome and I'll repeat to the interior minister that Lombardy has already done its part," said Roberto Maroni, the governor of Lombardy and a leading member of the Northern League.
"If there is any funding available, it should be spent on our citizens and not on clandestine migrants."
On Italian social media, parallels were drawn between the fanfare over the birth of Princess Charlotte in London, and the trying circumstances under which the migrant baby was born, on a warship in the middle of the Mediterranean.
"She may not have royal blood, but she too is a royal baby," wrote one Twitter user, while another Italian said: "Perhaps the princess we were waiting for is this one." (© Daily Telegraph, London)