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The crew of a P-3 Orion patrol aircraft deployed to Sigonella, Sicily, recently aided in the rescue of 39 African refugees packed into an overloaded, 18-foot-long rubber boat in the Mediterranean Sea about 70 miles south of Malta.

The 35 Eritreans and four Ethiopeans used a satellite telephone to make a distress call from the boat late Thursday night. The signal was picked up by Maltese authorities, who started to search for the boat and contacted Italian and U.S. military forces for help.

The Navy Orion and an ATL3 Atlantique of the Italian air force’s 41st Stormo — or squadron — joined the search early Friday morning.

The Orion and its 11-member crew, attached to Patrol Squadron 26 of Naval Air Station Brunswick, Maine, spent 8½ hours searching for the boat, which was located early that afternoon.

With their aircraft low on fuel, the crew dropped a search-and-rescue kit with two life rafts and survival gear to the refugees, then directed Armed Forces Malta Patrol Boat P-51 to the scene before returning to Sigonella.

“We’ve rehearsed doing this but have never gotten to do it,” said mission commander Lt. Cmdr. Chip Barnes. “Overall, it’s a rare occasion to push the SAR kit out the door.”

According to the Malta Times, the P-51 escorted the boat to a maritime base on the island nation. The 34 men, three women and two children were reported by Maltese authorities to be in good health.

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