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Tunisian navy rescues over 170 people in Mediterranean

Two dead as UN refugee agency says numbers attempting dangerous crossing from North Africa up 70 per cent from last year
Migrants rescued at sea by Tunisia's national guard at the port of el-Ketef in southern Tunisia near the border with Libya on 27 June 2021 (AFP)

Tunisia's defence ministry said on Sunday that its navy had rescued 178 people who were trying to cross the Mediterranean from Libya to reach Europe.

Two bodies were recovered and 178 people rescued during three operations off Tunisia's south coast, a ministry statement said, according to AFP.

The migrants, who the ministry said were from Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Ivory Coast, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Mali and Ethiopia, had set off from the Libyan port of Zuwara overnight on Friday.

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Tunisian authorities on Thursday intercepted 267 people who had also begun the sea crossing from Libya, most of them Bangladeshis, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said.

Red Crescent official Mongi Slim warned on Thursday that centres set up to house migrants in southern Tunisia were full.

According to IOM figures, more than 1,000 people hoping to reach Europe had set off from Libya and ended up in Tunisia since January, and the number of departures was rising.

There had been 11,000 departures from January to April 2021 from Libya, over 70 percent more than in the same period last year, according to the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR.

The agency said the "deteriorating" conditions of migrants in Libya were pushing many to make the dangerous crossing from the North African coast to Europe.

According to the UN, at least 760 people had died trying to make the Mediterranean crossing between 1 January and 31 May.