The French maritime police said on Sunday in Paris that their patrol ship rescued 217 migrants from three small boats that had run into trouble off the coast of Libya on Saturday night.

It said two suspected people smugglers were also arrested, while the intercepted vessels have all been neutralised.

The maritime police said the rescued migrants and the suspected people smugglers have been handed over to the Italian authorities.

The sea was one of the main routes into the European Union for tens of thousands of mostly Asian and African migrants fleeing war and poverty, with almost 40,000 people having arrived this year already.

A migrant boat sank with the loss of more than 700 lives last month, raising pressure for action by EU countries, who pledged to step up search and rescue operations in the southern Mediterranean. (Reuters/NAN)

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