- Rescued migrants, who set sail from North Africa, are being taken to a Sicilian port
- Boats were losing buoyancy and didn't have life jackets, navy says
- The navy says 124 women and 29 children are among those rescued
- Italy is a major gateway into Europe for migrants from North Africa
The Italian navy rescued 730 migrants from overcrowded boats in the Mediterranean Sea south of Sicily, it said Wednesday.
The migrants, who departed in two boats from North Africa, are being taken to a port in Sicily's Agrigento province, the navy said in a statement.
Those rescued include 124 women and 29 children, it said. The overcrowded boats were losing buoyancy and the migrants were not equipped with life jackets, the navy added.
Italy is a major gateway into Europe for migrants who come by sea from North Africa in hope of reaching EU soil.
Shipwrecks off the shores of its Mediterranean islands of Sicily and Lampedusa are common, thanks to the frequent use of overcrowded and barely seaworthy vessels.
But despite the dangers, migrants keep coming.
Some of the migrants are from African nations, particularly Eritrea and Somalia, while others have fled war-torn Syria, officials say.
According to the European border agency Frontex, more than 12,000 illegal migrants were detected off Sicily and 8,000 off Lampedusa in the third quarter of last year.
Many of those arriving on Italy's shores have set sail from Libya, the agency said.
The deaths of more than 300 African migrants in a shipwreck off Lampedusa last October shocked Italy and the world, and led to calls for EU lawmakers to review their migration policies.
International organizations such as the U.N. refugee agency have called on European and other leaders to try to address the root causes of migration and to create legal alternatives to dangerous sea crossings.