Two migrants drowned and another two were found dead aboard a dinghy whose occupants were rescued by a ship about 70 nautical miles south of Malta yesterday afternoon.

The dinghy had approached the merchant vessel MV Victoria 6 with about 50 migrants on board just after lunchtime. They were in a very poor state of health and requiring urgent medical attention, the Armed Forces of Malta said.

The ship was conducting maintenance at the time.

In what was described as a hazardous manoeuvre, the crew of the Victoria 6 transferred the migrants onto the ship.

But as the operation was underway, two of them fell into the sea and could not be recovered, the AFM said.

An AFM plane, a Hawker Beechcraft King Air B200 that was already in the area, was diverted to the spot and carried out an extensive search but there was no trace of the missing migrants.

Another two individuals were reported to be dead on board the dinghy and were left there as it was towed towards Malta – the nearest safe port – by the Victoria 6 late last night.

At one point the AFM was preparing to send a helicopter to the merchant ship to assess the migrants and if necessary carry out a medical evacuation of the most severe cases.

However, this was not deemed necessary and an AFM patrol boat went out to meet it about 15 miles off shore.

It took the migrants aboard and was expected to be back in harbour some time after midnight.

Meanwhile, late yesterday, a second patrol boat was involved in an operation to rescue migrants from another dinghy.

It was not known how many were aboard but unofficial sources said it was a bigger boatload than the first.

The AFM vessel was expected back in the early hours of this morning. The nationalities of the latest arrivals were still unknown last night.

There has been an increase in the number of migrants reaching Malta this year, with the figure reaching more than 1,200, including the latest arrivals. The majority claim asylum.

The still unsettled situation in Libya could prompt many more sub-Saharan migrants in that country to attempt the often dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean towards Europe.

Last year the island received 1,890 asylum applications, which was a substantial rise over 2010, when just two boats turned up on Malta’s shores.

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