ROME - Italy is to step up military patrols in the southern Mediterranean to try to prevent repeats of the shipwrecks which have drowned hundreds of African migrants this month.
Prime Minister Enrico Letta said late on Saturday an "air and naval package" would be put in place south of Sicily, where tens of thousands of migrants in flimsy, overcrowded boats have made the crossing from Africa so far this year.
Italian officials have been increasingly worried by the uncontrolled arrivals from a region destabilised by the civil war in Syria, chaos in Libya and unrest in Egypt and elsewhere.
"We intend to triple our presence, in terms of both men and means in the southern Mediterranean, for a military-humanitarian mission that has been made necessary in part by the fact that Libya is currently a 'non-state'", Defence Minister Mario Mauro told the daily Avvenire newspaper.
He said operational and financial details of the deployment were being worked out and could involve more patrol vessels or more powerful ships with greater surveillance capacity.
"We need strong action to stop these shipwrecks out to sea,"he told the newspaper.
In addition to coastguard and frontier police vessels, the Italian navy currently has three vessels supported by four helicopters patrolling the area, and two surveillance aircraft with night vision capabilities in support.
Italy and Malta, which have borne the brunt of the crisis, have asked for more funds from the European Union and called for the migrant emergency to be put on the agenda of the next European Council meeting on Oct. 24-25.