A charity ship rescued some 100 migrants in the Mediterranean on Wednesday, including 22 small children who had survived their foundering dinghy being pummelled by a wave fellow occupants said drowned six people.
Charity Mediterranea Saving Humans said the survivors were taken aboard the Mare Jonio vessel, which was still seeking safe port hours later with hardline Interior Minister Matteo Salvini barring it from entering Italian waters.
"Some of them are babies: castaways with a pacifier in their mouth," the charity said of the rescued migrants. They included 26 women, eight of whom are pregnant.
"The raft we, fortunately, pulled them out from was adrift" and starting to deflate, it said on Facebook.
The survivors told a journalist from the Repubblica daily on board the ship that six people had drowned.
"You arrived just in time," he quoted the survivors as telling the crew of the Mediterranea's ship.
"The dinghy was about to collapse. Last night it began to deflate. A wave hit it and many of us fell overboard. Six of us didn't know how to swim, and died," they reportedly said.
The rescue brought the total number of migrants saved to over 200 this week.
Italy and Malta have repeatedly refused to allow charity vessels to dock until other EU nations agree to take in the migrants on them.
Italy accuses the rescue ships of acting as a "pull factor" for people fleeing violence and poverty in the Middle East and Africa.
'At least 900 dead'
"What would have happened to the 28 children, 26 women ... without @RescueMed?" asked Carlotta Sami, spokesperson for the UN's refugee agency, referencing the Mediterranea's twitter handle.
"At least 900 people have died in the Mediterranean this year.
Tragedies that would be avoided if humanitarian actions were not used for political ends," she said on Twitter.
Save the Children said the rescue of pregnant women and small children was "confirmation that search and rescue activities are indispensable to avoid the unacceptable tragedies that continue to happen before our eyes."
Its Italy director Raffaela Milano called for a defunct European search and rescue system to be "immediately reactivated."
The EU's main naval mission in the area — Operation Sophia — ceased its maritime patrols in March. While it was not primarily a rescue mission, international law meant it had to aid vessels in distress.
"No parent would take a child of that age to see if the land was safer," Milano said.
"The mothers and children on board the Mare Jonio must be allowed to disembark as soon as possible in a safe port."
On Tuesday, Salvini refused to let a German ship carrying some 100 migrants to enter Italian waters.
No safe port
The Eleonore, run by German charity Mission Lifeline, said it had pulled them from a collapsing dinghy on Monday.
But it ran into the Libyan coastguard, which the charity said threatened the crew and wanted to take the migrants back to the war-stricken country, which is not considered a safe port under international law.
In June, Malta investigated a Dutch-flagged rescue ship, the Lifeline, run by the same German charity, after it docked more than 230 migrants.
The captain was accused by Italy and Malta of breaking the law by refusing to comply with Libyan authorities, and was handed a hefty fine for incorrect registration of the ship.
He is appealing the ruling.
Over 34,000 migrants and refugees have made the dangerous journey into Europe by sea this year, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported in July.