European ships rescue thousands of migrants off Libyan coast

Migrants, most of them from Eritrea, jump into the water from a crowded wooden boat as they are helped by members of an NGO during a rescue operation on the Mediterranean sea, about 13 miles north of Sabratha, Libya, Monday, Aug. 29, 2016. Thousands of migrants and refugees were rescued Monday morning from more than 20 boats by members of Proactiva Open Arms NGO before transferring them to the Italian cost guards and others NGO vessels operating at the zone. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)
Belongings left behind by migrants are seen in the floor of a wooden boat where more than seven hundred migrants were fleeing Libya, during a rescue operation at the Mediterranean sea, about 13 miles north of Sabratha, Libya, Monday, Aug. 29, 2016. Thousands of migrants and refugees were rescued Monday morning from more than 20 boats by members of Proactiva Open Arms NGO before transferring them to the Italian cost guards and others NGO vessels operating in the zone.(AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)
Migrants fleeing Libya on board of a dinghy wait to be rescued by emergency teams, as they were sailing at the Mediterranean sea toward the Italian coasts, about 17 miles north of Sabratha, Libya, Sunday, Aug. 28, 2016. More than seven hundred migrants were rescued Sunday morning from seven boats by members of Proactiva Open Arms NGO before transferring them to the Italian cost guards operating at the zone.(AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)
Migrant women from Nigeria, one of them holding a baby, are rescued by emergency teams from a dinghy as they were sailing at the Mediterranean sea toward the Italian coasts, about 17 miles north of Sabratha, Libya, Sunday, Aug. 28, 2016. More than seven hundred migrants were rescued Sunday morning from seven boats by members of Proactiva Open Arms NGO before transferring them to the Italian cost guards operating at the zone. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)
Ahma, 24, and Habsa, 26, left, sit in a rigid inflatable boat after been rescued from a crowded wooden boat as they were fleeing Libya, during a rescue operation in the Mediterranean sea, about 13 miles north of Sabratha, Libya, Monday, Aug. 29, 2016. Thousands of migrants and refugees were rescued Monday morning from more than 20 boats by members of Proactiva Open Arms NGO before transferring them to the Italian cost guards and others NGO vessels operating in the zone.(AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)
Migrants, most of them from Eritrea, jump into the water from a crowded wooden boat as they are helped by members of an NGO during a rescue operation at the Mediterranean sea, about 13 miles north of Sabratha, Libya, Monday, Aug. 29, 2016. Thousands of migrants and refugees were rescued Monday morning from more than 20 boats by members of Proactiva Open Arms NGO before transferring them to the Italian cost guards and others NGO vessels operating at the zone. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)
Migrants from Eritrea hold their children after been rescued from a crowded wooden boat as they were fleeing Libya, during a rescue operation in the Mediterranean sea, about 13 miles north of Sabratha, Libya, Monday, Aug. 29, 2016. Thousands of migrants and refugees were rescued Monday morning from more than 20 boats by members of Proactiva Open Arms NGO before transferring them to the Italian cost guards and others NGO vessels operating in the zone.(AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)
Migrants sailing in a crowded wooden boat carrying more than seven hundred migrants, are helped by members of an NGO during a rescue operation at the Mediterranean sea, about 13 miles north of Sabratha, Libya, Monday, Aug. 29, 2016. Thousands of migrants and refugees were rescued Monday morning from more than 20 boats by members of Proactiva Open Arms NGO before transferring them to the Italian cost guards and others NGO vessels operating in the zone.(AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)
Migrants, most of them from Eritrea, jumps into the water from a crowded wooden boat as they are helped by members of an NGO during a rescue operation at the Mediterranean sea, about 13 miles north of Sabratha, Libya, Monday, Aug. 29, 2016. Thousands of migrants and refugees were rescued Monday morning from more than 20 boats by members of Proactiva Open Arms NGO before transferring them to the Italian cost guards and others NGO vessels operating in the zone.(AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)
Wet belonging of a migrant man are drying in the sun after being rescued at the Mediterranean sea, about 13 miles north of Sabratha, Libya, Monday, Aug. 29, 2016. Some thousands of migrants were rescued Monday morning from more than 20 boats by members of Proactiva Open Arms NGO before transferring them to the Italian cost guard and others NGO vessels operating in the zone. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)
A man holds himself on the side of a boat after jumping into the sea from a crowded wooden boat during a rescue operation at the Mediterranean sea, about 13 miles north of Sabratha, Libya, Monday, Aug. 29, 2016. Thousands of migrants and refugees were rescued Monday morning from more than 20 boats by members of Proactiva Open Arms NGO before transferring them to the Italian cost guards and others NGO vessels operating at the zone.(AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)
Migrants from Eritrea hold their children after been rescued from a crowded wooden boat as they were fleeing Libya, during a rescue operation in the Mediterranean sea, about 13 miles north of Sabratha, Libya, Monday, Aug. 29, 2016. Thousands of migrants and refugees were rescued Monday morning from more than 20 boats by members of Proactiva Open Arms NGO before transferring them to the Italian cost guards and others NGO vessels operating in the zone.(AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)
Migrants, most of them from Eritrea, jump into the water from a crowded wooden boat as they are helped by members of an NGO during a rescue operation at the Mediterranean sea, about 13 miles north of Sabratha, Libya, Monday, Aug. 29, 2016. Thousands of migrants and refugees were rescued Monday morning from more than 20 boats by members of Proactiva Open Arms NGO before transferring them to the Italian cost guards and others NGO vessels operating at the zone.(AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)
The wet personal belonging of a migrant man are spread out to dry in the sun after he was rescued from the Mediterranean sea, about 13 miles north of Sabratha, Libya, Monday, Aug. 29, 2016. Some thousands of migrants and refugees were rescued Monday morning from more than 20 boats by members of Proactiva Open Arms NGO before transferring them to the Italian cost guards and others NGO vessels operating at the zone. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)
A migrant from Eritrea is helped after jumping into the water from a crowded wooden boat during a rescue operation in the Mediterranean sea, about 13 miles north of Sabratha, Libya, Monday, Aug. 29, 2016. Thousands of migrants and refugees were rescued Monday morning from more than 20 boats by members of Proactiva Open Arms NGO before transferring them to the Italian cost guards and others NGO vessels operating in the zone.(AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)
A migrant from Eritrea grabs a RIB after jumping into the water from a crowded wooden boat during a rescue operation at the Mediterranean sea, about 13 miles north of Sabratha, Libya, Monday, Aug. 29, 2016. Thousands of migrants and refugees were rescued Monday morning from more than 20 boats by members of Proactiva Open Arms NGO before transferring them to the Italian cost guards and others NGO vessels operating at the zone.(AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)
An Italian Navy ship sails past a burning dinghy after evacuating the migrants sailing on it in the Mediterranean sea toward the Italian coasts, about 17 miles north of Sabratha, Libya, Sunday, Aug. 28, 2016. More than seven hundred migrants were rescued Sunday morning from seven boats by members of Proactiva Open Arms NGO before transferring them to the Italian cost guards operating at the zone. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)
Belongings left behind by migrants are seen in the floor of a wooden boat where more than seven hundred migrants were fleeing Libya, during a rescue operation in the Mediterranean sea, about 13 miles north of Sabratha, Libya, Monday, Aug. 29, 2016. Thousands of migrants and refugees were rescued Monday morning from more than 20 boats by members of Proactiva Open Arms NGO before transferring them to the Italian cost guards and others NGO vessels operating in the zone.(AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)
A man carries his five days old son after been rescued from a crowded wooden vessel as they were fleeing Libya, during a rescue operation in the Mediterranean sea, about 13 miles north of Sabratha, Libya, Monday, Aug. 29, 2016. Thousands of migrants and refugees were rescued Monday morning from more than 20 boats by members of Proactiva Open Arms NGO before transferring them to the Italian cost guards and others NGO vessels operating at the zone.(AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)
Italian officers rescue a woman from a crowded wooden boat carrying more than seven hundred migrants, during a rescue operation in the Mediterranean sea, about 13 miles north of Sabratha, Libya, Monday, Aug. 29, 2016. Thousands of migrants and refugees were rescued Monday morning from more than 20 boats by members of Proactiva Open Arms NGO and Italian military officers. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)
Belongings left behind by migrants are seen in the hold of a wooden boat where more than seven hundred migrants were fleeing Libya during a rescue operation in the Mediterranean sea, about 13 miles north of Sabratha, Libya, Monday, Aug. 29, 2016. Thousands of migrants and refugees were rescued Monday morning from more than 20 boats by members of Proactiva Open Arms NGO before transferring them to the Italian cost guards and others NGO vessels operating in the zone.(AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)
A LIbyan coast guard stands on a wooden boat where more than seven hundred migrants were sailing in to flee Libya, during a rescue operation in the Mediterranean sea, about 13 miles north of Sabratha, Libya, Monday, Aug. 29, 2016. Thousands of migrants and refugees were rescued Monday morning from more than 20 boats by members of Proactiva Open Arms NGO before transferring them to the Italian cost guards and others NGO vessels operating in the zone.(AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

OFF THE COAST OF LIBYA — Italian naval ships and vessels from non-government groups rescued thousands of migrants off the Libyan coast on Monday, the latest surge in desperate attempts to flee to Europe driven by war, poverty, and human traffickers.

The dramatic operation took place just 21 kilometers (13 miles) north of the town of Sabratha in Libya. Groups such as Proactiva Open Arms and Doctors Without Borders helped take on some 3,000 people who had been travelling in some 20 small wooden boats.

In images and video by The Associated Press, migrants from Eritrea and Somalia cheered as the rescue boats arrived, with some jumping into the water and swimming toward them while others carefully carried babies onto the rescue ships.

Their boats too weak and technically unequipped for a voyage across the stretch of the Mediterranean to the shores of Italy, the migrants had set off with a bit of gasoline in the overcrowded vessels, hoping to make it at least 15-20 miles out to sea and reach awaiting rescuers.

Tens of thousands of Africans take the dangerous Mediterranean Sea route as a gateway to a better life in Europe, alongside those fleeing wars from Syria to Afghanistan.

Libya's chaos and lack of border controls have made it into a transit route. Since the 2011 ouster and killing of longtime Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, the country has sunk into lawlessness, facing a myriad of militias vying for influence and an emerging Islamic State affiliate.

In June, the European Union expanded its anti-smuggling operation in the central Mediterranean to include training Libyan coastal and naval forces, which are intercepting boats and returning migrants to Libya, where some are being held in abusive conditions.

Rights groups and experts estimate that there are about 3,500 migrants held in roughly 20 official detention facilities across Libya. Others are held in informal detention centers controlled by criminal gangs or armed groups.

___

This story has been corrected to show that the Spanish navy did not take part in the operation.

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