A cruise ship has picked up hundreds of people, apparently refugees who fled Syria, who were stranded aboard a small boat off Cyprus.

The Cypriot Defence Ministry said 345 people, including 53 children, would arrive at the country's southern port of Limassol later. They will then be taken to a reception centre near the capital Nicosia where they will be given shelter and medical attention.

Salamis Cruise Lines said one of its ships was instructed to change course and pick up the people packed aboard the smaller vessel.

The Defence Ministry said the boat issued a distress call amid bad weather and had "most likely" set sail from Syria loaded with "civilian refugees".

Salamis Cruise Lines managing director Kikis Vasiliou said the company received the request from Cypriot search and rescue authorities to assist in the rescue operation while the liner was returning to Cyprus from the Greek islands.

The Defence Ministry said the small boat was about 50 nautical miles off Cyprus's south-western coastal town of Paphos.

Mr Vasiliou said the cruise ship, with a crew of 230 and a passenger capacity of 800, would be able to give the refugees blankets, medical care and food while taking them to Limassol.

Thousands of migrants fleeing conflicts in the Middle East and northern Africa attempt to cross the Mediterranean Sea in rickety boats in search of safe havens in Europe, and hundreds have died at sea.