The Armed Forces of Malta has rescued 81 migrants who were stranded in a boat in Malta's search and rescue area, including three who were found dead. 

Sources said the rescue operation began late on Tuesday night and continued into the early hours of the morning, with the rescued migrants brought to Malta at about 4.30am. 

The migrants, who were travelling on a rickety wooden boat, are understood to have issued a distress call after finding themselves in difficulty while out at sea.

When the AFM reached the boat, they were informed that three of them had died during the voyage, probably due to dehydration, exhaustion and a possible heatstroke. The dead migrants are believed to be Sudanese.

The rescue operation took place on the eastern side of Tunisia and the migrants are believed to have departed from Libya. 

The government said in a statement later that the people saved included five women and three children.

The police immigration section is investigating the case. Duty magistrate Joseph Mifsud was informed about the case. He appointed several court experts to lead the inquiry. He also ordered that an autopsy be carried on the dead migrants to establish the cause of death. 

NGOs accuse Malta of 'criminal behaviour'

Humanitarian NGO Sea-Watch International says it first raised the alarm about the drifting migrant boat early on Tuesday. It said that although it had located three ships in the vicinity of the boat in distress, Malta ordered at least one of the ships not to intervene and to await further instructions. 

“Malta has to stop its criminal behaviour and people have to be brought to safety without further delay,” the NGO said in a tweet. 

According to fellow NGO Alarm Phone, the rescue only took place after the asylum seekers had spent "several hours in distress".

"We had informed authorities about their critical health situation since the morning but the rescue was delayed!," the organisation said. 

Alarm Phone is an emergency hotline NGO that receives SOS messages from migrants crossing the Mediterranean and then relays them to the national authorities, depending on their exact location. Malta’s search and rescue area is quite large so this prolongs their distress at sea. 

According to the Libya office of the International Organisation for Migration, a total of 326 migrants were rescued or intercepted at sea between July 4 and 10 and they have all been returned to Libya. In the preceding week, almost 1,000 migrants were rescued or intercepted at sea and returned to Libya. 

So far this year, more than 16,000 migrants were rescued or intercepted at sea and returned to Libya. The office’s data includes 224 death and more than 500 migrants who are still unaccounted for.

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