An Italian coastguard vessel Saturday rushed to a rescue ship funded by British street artist Banksy, which sent out a call for help with more than 200 migrants onboard, and took in 49 of the most vulnerable people on board.
The German-flagged MV Louise Michel said it was stranded and needed urgent help after helping a boat carrying at least one dead migrant.
The 31-metre (101-foot) vessel's crew said it was overcrowded and unable to move after encountering another boat with 130 people on board trying to cross the sea dividing Europe and Africa.
"Given the danger of the situation, the coastguard sent a patrol boat to Lampedusa which took in 49 people deemed the most fragile, including 32 women, 13 children and four men," a statement said.
They were transferred to a vessel chartered by the German NGO Sea Watch and medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF).
"There is already one dead person on the boat. We need immediate assistance," the Louise Michel crew wrote on Twitter earlier, saying other migrants had fuel burns and had been at sea for days.
The rescued migrants later said three people had died at sea before the arrival of the Louise Michel.
Banksy, who keeps his true identity a secret, explained in a video posted online that he had bought the boat to help migrants "because EU authorities deliberately ignore distress calls from non-Europeans".
'Lack of reaction'
The Louise Michel crew said in a tweet it was "great" the Italian coastguard had intervened and taken 49 migrants, but added that the majority were still waiting.
The Sea-Watch 4 vessel had arrived and "will help us to do what Europe is not capable of doing", it added.
Sea-Watch 4, which has a clinic onboard, had already rescued 201 migrants and is itself in search of a host port,
Its crew nonetheless decided to help the Louise Michel "in the face of the lack of reaction" from the authorities, a spokesman for the German NGO Sea-Watch,, told AFP.
The Louise Michel's vessel's crew of 10 had already rescued 89 people from a rubber boat in distress Thursday.
They tweeted that there were a total 219 people on board and that they had requested assistance from both the Italian and Maltese authorities.
The boat -- a former French customs vessel named after 19th-century French anarchist Louise Michel -- was around 90 kilometres (55 miles) southeast of Lampedusa on Saturday, according to the global ship tracking website Marine Traffic.
Painted in hot pink and white, the Louise Michel features a Banksy artwork depicting a girl in a life vest holding a heart-shaped safety buoy.
Its crew is "made up of European activists with long experience in search and rescue operations" and is captained by German human rights activist Pia Klemp, who has also captained other such rescue vessels, The Guardian newspaper reported.
Thousands of people are thought to have died making the dangerous trip across the Mediterranean to flee conflict, repression and poverty in Africa and the Middle East.
According to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, attempts by migrant boats to cross the Mediterranean into Europe have increased this year, up 91 percent from January to July over last year's figures, to 14,481 people.
'An anti-fascist fight'
Banksy's involvement in the rescue mission goes back to September 2019 when he sent Klemp an email asking how he could contribute.
Klemp, who initially thought it was a joke, told the paper she believed she was chosen because of her political stance, The Guardian said.
"I don't see sea rescue as a humanitarian action, but as part of an anti-fascist fight," she told the paper.
Early this month, humanitarian organisations said they would resume migrant rescues in the Mediterranean Sea, where none have operated since the Ocean Viking docked in Italy in early July.
Before the Ocean Viking's last mission, rescue operations in the Mediterranean had been suspended for months due to the global coronavirus pandemic.
Meanwhile in the French Mediterranean city of Marseille, 30 protesters called on the Italian authorities to release the migrant rescue ship Ocean Viking, detained last month by the Italian coastguard over technical irregularities,
© Agence France-Presse