Migrants rescued thanks to calls to Rome pensioner

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Rome (AFP)

A pensioner in Rome helped save hundreds of migrants after he received a call by satellite phone from one of five overcrowded boats in difficulty on the high seas, Italian media reports said Thursday.

"I couldn't understand a word, the caller was speaking in English, in French. I had no idea what he wanted at dawn," the 66-year old told the Corriere della Sera daily, describing how he was called repeatedly on Tuesday morning by the same number.

Believing it to be a nuisance call, he hung up the first few times and eventually called the police to report the disturbance. But when two officers arrived, and the call came through again, they realised it was an SOS plea.

They could hear "the sea, the wind, and the noise of a boat engine," the daily said, adding that the officers alerted the coastguard, which tracked the satellite phone and discovered one dinghy and four boats adrift in the Mediterranean, with a total of some 600 migrants aboard.

The man who made the calls from the boats, which had set off from Libya, had been dialling numbers at random with the city of Rome's prefix until someone answered, the reports said.

The Italian coastguard said Tuesday it had rescued more than 1,500 migrants in 11 separate operations in the Strait of Sicily in the space of a few days, as a wave of boats departing from Libya intensifies.