Italy's navy and coastguard said Friday they were racing to save some 1,300 migrants in difficulty in the Central Mediterranean, nearly two weeks after a deadly shipwreck killed more than 70 people.
Photographs released by the coastguard showed three overcrowded boats that it said were heading towards the southern region of Calabria.
The massive rescue operation came as Italy's right-wing government defended itself from accusations it failed to prevent the deadly shipwreck last month.
Friday's operations were "particularly complex due to the large number of people present on board the drifting boats", the coastguard said.
The navy said one of its ships was "proceeding at maximum speed" to help the coastguard, which it said was "in difficulty".
Rescuers were assisting one boat with an estimated 500 people on board some 70 nautical miles (129.64 km) south off Crotone, the coastguard said.
Others were assisting two other boats further south, off Roccella Ionica.
At least 73 people died in a shipwreck near Crotone in the early hours of February 26, after an overcrowded boat which had set off from Turkey sank in stormy weather.
Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni's government has been forced to deny responsibility for the disaster, amid accusations it treated the boat as a law enforcement issue rather than a humanitarian emergency.
Meloni's far-right Brothers of Italy party, which won elections last year, has promised to curb arrivals, but Italy has recently seen a sharp rise in the number of migrants attempting to reach its shores.
The interior ministry says more than 17,500 people have arrived by sea so far this year -- almost three times the number for the same period last year.
The number of arrivals through the Central Mediterranean route rose 116 percent in January and February, compared to the same period last year, EU border agency Frontex said Friday.
And the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, which sits closer to North Africa than Italy, recorded 41 boat arrivals on Thursday, a record number for one day, according to Italian media reports.