Navy Lt. Patricia Kreuzberger says the rescue mission was launched after the Navy received word of “six small vessels, one of which was sinking.”
Kreuzberger said in a statement Saturday when the amphibious assault ship USS Bataan, along with the guided missile frigate USS Elrod, arrived at the scene, the Bataan launched its helicopters, with rescue swimmers pulling some people from the water. Small boats from the Bataan and from the Elrod helped to rescue the others.
In all, Kreuzberger says the ships saved 282 people.
The two ships had been dispatched to the area after an Italian patrol aircraft reported seeing the ragtag and troubled flotilla around 3 p.m. Friday.
Those rescued -- men, women and children -- were taken aboard the larger Bataan, with Navy personnel providing food, water and medical aid.
Later, 277 people were transferred to an Armed Forces of Malta patrol ship, while five others were medically evacuated to Malta.
The Navy did not provide details about the vessels, where they had originated from, or the destination of the people on board. However, in recent years scores of refugees from Africa have tried to cross the Mediterranean, often on small, dangerously overcrowded and poorly maintained boats.
Last month 121 people perished when three boats sank trying to make the crossing.
The United Nations Refugee Agency said after that tragedy that it was “deeply saddened” in the increase in the number of people seeking asylum and other refugees attempting the sea journey on boats that were not seaworthy.
"The other shipwrecks we know of, include one that took place off Libya around May 6 when a boat carrying 130 people capsized some 30 minutes into the journey, just a few miles from the coast," UN spokesman Adrian Edwards said in a statement.
“Some of the 53 survivors told UNHCR that the smugglers set off even though the boat was damaged," Edwards said.
The United Nations estimates that including the deaths of 121 people last month, more than 170 people have died at sea trying to reach Europe so far this year, including those who lost their lives off Greece, Libya and Italy and in international waters.
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