A cargo vessel carrying hundreds of migrants is being towed to Italy after it was abandoned by smugglers and left drifting without a crew in the second such case in just a few days.
Italian Coast Guard Commander Filippo Marini said on Friday that after several hours of struggling in rough seas, rescue teams managed to secure the Ezadeen for towing toward the southern Calabrian region.
An Icelandic ship, part of a European new European patrol force to aid migrants at sea, was doing the tow.
Children and pregnant women were among an estimated 450 migrants on board, most of who were believed to be Syrian, said Marini. The Sierra-Leone-flagged cargo ship apparently set sail from Turkey, he said.
The engines of the ship were left on autopilot by fleeing crew and shut down due to malfunction late on Thursday.
One of the estimated 450 people on board the Ezadeen was able to operate the ship’s radio and informed the coastguard that the crew had jumped ship.
The Italian air force sent a helicopter to lower rescuers on to the vessel as bad weather conditions made it impossible to board the ship other than from the air.
The latest high-seas drama came two days after Italian sailors intercepted a freighter carrying more than 700 mostly Syrian migrants which had been heading for the rocks of Italy’s southeastern shore on autopilot.
The vessel had been abandoned by the people smugglers who had navigated it from Turkey via Greek waters.
In that incident, the Moldovan-registered Blue Sky M cargo ship got to within 8km, or 45 minutes sailing time, of a disaster before six navy officers were lowered on to the ship by helicopter and succeeded in bringing it under control.
Those on board included 60 children and two pregnant women, one of whom gave birth on board as the boat steamed towards catastrophe, according to the Italian Red Cross.
Many of the migrants on the ship were treated for hypothermia and broken limbs.
Italy has had to deal with a massive surge in migrants – many of them from the Middle East and the Horn of Africa – hoping to reach Europe by boat.
More than 170,000 people have been rescued in the last 14 months but an estimated 3,000 have perished trying to make the crossing. Aljazeera