Coffins of victims from a shipwreck off Sicily are seen in a hangar of the Lampedusa airport
Coffins of victims from the Lampedusa shipwreck are seen in a hangar of the Lampedusa airport in 2013 (Reuters)

An Italian submarine has played a pivotal role in the navy's arrest of 16 suspected human smugglers in the Mediterranean, off the Sicilian coast, during an operation that saved 300 asylum-seekers.

The navy operation took place just one year after the Lampedusa disaster in which 360 people died when the boat ferrying them from north Africa caught fire and keeled over.

A fishing boat, which had been carrying immigrants from north Africa towards Italy, was seized and 16 traffickers taken into custody during the "complex surveillance operation", according to a navy statement.

The Prini submarine helped the navy to monitor the ship unnoticed from a short distance and gather evidence to convict the smugglers. Some 300 people travelling on the boat were rescued just before their transferral to a small vessel by the traffickers.

Former Italy's prime minister Enrico Letta heralded operation Mare Nostrum, from the ancient Romans' name of the Mediterranean sea, in October 2013 to try search and save refugees from drowning in the perilous journey to Italian coasts.

However, the UN refugee agency estimates that between 1 July and 30 September this year at least 2,200 lost their lives. In the latest tragedy off Malta, 500 people were killed when their boat was deliberately sunk by smugglers. Only 11 survived.