(Reuters) - A French patrol ship rescued 217 migrants from three small boats that had run into trouble off the coast of Libya on Saturday, the maritime police said in a statement.

The Commandant Birot helped several dozen people in distress and intercepted two suspected people smugglers, according to the statement.

"The intercepted vessels have all been neutralized," the maritime police said, adding that they were responding to a call from the maritime rescue coordination center in Rome as part of the European Union's operation Triton.

The rescued migrants and the suspected people smugglers have been handed over to the Italian authorities, the Toulon, France-based maritime police added.

The sea is one of the main routes into the European Union for tens of thousands of mostly Asian and African migrants fleeing war and poverty, with almost 40,000 people having arrived this year already.

A migrant boat sank with the loss of more than 700 lives last month, raising pressure for action by EU countries, who pledged to step up search and rescue operations in the southern Mediterranean.

(Reporting by James Regan; editing by Ralph Boulton)