ROME: Three boats overcrowded with migrants were brought safely to Italian ports on Saturday, the coastguard said, as thousands of marchers remembered the victims of last month's deadly shipwreck off Calabria's coast.

The rescue of more than 1,300 migrants came the same day as three more bodies from the shipwreck nearly two weeks ago were found, bringing the death toll to 76. The bodies recovered were those of two girls, both under the age of 10, and that of an adult male, said Italian news reports.

The February 26 shipwreck just off the shore of Calabria, has drawn sharp criticism of the right-wing government led by Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni for its failure to intervene in time to save the migrants.

In Cutro on Saturday, near the site of the disaster, thousands of marchers accompanied a cross made of splintered wood from the shipwreck, which was carried through the streets to the water's edge. "This cross is a symbol of suffering today," said Domenico "Mimmo" Lucano, a former Calabrian mayor, the ANSA news agency.

"During these emergencies, Calabrian communities are shaken, and what prevails is a spirit of solidarity that the government doesn't show," he said. Lucano is known for his activism on behalf of migrants.

On the defensive

On Friday, the coastguard began a rescue operation of three boats, one south of the Calabrian city of Crotone and two further south off Roccella Ionica. Coastguard videos showed a large fishing boat pitching violently back and forth in nightime rough seas with dozens of people visible on the deck. Other images showed inflatable rescue boats approaching another fishing vessel packed with people.

The 487 migrants onboard the first boat were safely brought to the port of Crotone at about 0200 GMT Saturday morning, the coastguard said. Another operation in which 500 migrants were rescued to a coastguard ship was wrapping up, it added. ANSA had earlier reported that the ship had docked at the port of Reggio Calabria.

Two coastguard patrol vessels rescued a third boat carrying 379 people, transferring the migrants to a Navy ship headed to the Sicilian port of Augusta, it said. Italy's defence ministry said it had begun to air transfers of migrants away from the crowded migrant centre on the island of Lampedusa, which it said was now over capacity.

The recent shipwreck has put the government on the defensive. On Thursday, Meloni held a cabinet meeting at Cutro, near the disaster site, and announced a new decree that included stiffer prison sentences for human traffickers, but no new measures to help save lives.

Her far-right Brothers of Italy party, which won elections last year, had promised to curb arrivals, but Italy has recently seen a sharp rise in the number of migrants attempting to reach its shores via the dangerous Mediterranean crossing. The interior ministry says more than 17,500 people have arrived by sea so far this year-almost three times the number for the same period last year. - AFP