Three migrants died and about 15 were missing off the Libyan coast, the Italian navy said Saturday, after staging a rescue operation in the Mediterranean.

The navy intervened on Friday and a helicopter rescued three people suffering from hypothermia who were flown to the southern Italian island of Lampedusa, Admiral Fabio Agostini said.

This was after Italian air force pilots "spotted a dinghy in distress carrying about 20 people," he told Italian television in an interview tweeted by the navy.

"Three corpses were seen floating in the water during the operation," he said, adding that the rescuers had been unable to locate the dinghy.

A Red Crescent spokesman meanwhile said 16 bodies had been found on the beaches of the Libyan city of Sirte between January 2 and 15.

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), 83 people have died so far this year trying to cross the Mediterranean.

It said the number of migrants and refugees landing on European shores had almost doubled in the first 16 days of this year to 4,216 against 2,365 over the same period in 2018.

Sea Watch said on Friday it had picked up communication about the ‘distress case’ but a merchant vessel nearby was not responding.

In December, two vessels were stranded in Maltese waters after rescuing 49 migrants. After a few weeks at sea, the Maltese eventually allowed them to disembark.