Yet another Mediterranean tragedy has been narrowly averted after 450 refugees were abandoned by smugglers, leaving the vessel in rough seas without a crew, authorities said on Friday.
Italian Coast Guard Commander Filippo Marini said that after several hours of struggling, Italian rescue teams shortly before dawn managed to secure the wave-tossed Ezadeen for towing toward the southern Calabrian region.
Children and pregnant women were among the migrants, most of who were believed to be Syrian, said Marini. The Sierra-Leone-flagged cargo ship apparently set sail from Turkey, he said.
More than 170,000 migrants were intercepted or needed rescue by Italian navy, coast guard and air force patrols last year. This apparently new technique by smugglers of abandoning a ship after setting it on a crash course complicates rescue efforts, Marini told Italian state radio, "but the important thing is there are lives to be saved."
The Icelandic ship Tyr, part of a European new European patrol force to detect and aid migrants at sea, was doing the towing through the bad weather.
Italian Air Force official Nicolo Nicolosi told Sky TG24 TV that engineers and electricians were lowered by Air Force helicopter to the ship to get the Ezadeen steering smoothly so it could safely enter a port. A blackout on board complicated efforts; the cause of the blackout was not immediately clear. "So far the operation is going well," said Nicolosi.
Earlier on Friday, Marini said that a migrant had called for help saying: "we're without crew, we're heading toward the Italian coast and we have no one to steer."
The Ezadeen is the second cargo ship full of migrants to be abandoned at sea this week. It comes less than 48 hours after the Italian Coast Guard rescued a further 970 migrants after smugglers put their cargo ship on automatic pilot heading straight for a crash into the Italian coast and abandoned the command.
The migrants, who were mostly women and children, arrived arrived safely in Gallipoli where more than 100 were treated for hypothermia. One of the women apparently gave birth as the ship headed for the coastline, according to the Italian Red Cross. Four people were found dead on the ship.
"It was a race against time," Marini said of that case. "The ship was only a few (nautical) miles away from the coast of Puglia" on Tuesday night when six Coast Guard officials were lowered by helicopter onto the bridge of the Moldovan-flagged Blue Sky M to try to correct the ship's course.
Marini said the smugglers apparently had left the engine blocked on automatic pilot at a speed of 6 knots (nearly 7 mph) into the coast. "There would have been death and destruction" if the vessel had crashed into the coast, he added.
To avoid capture, smugglers frequently abandon migrants at sea, sometimes overturning the passengers' unseaworthy boats, according to survivors. This year alone, well over 100,000 migrants were rescued at sea by Italy. Hundreds drowned in the attempt.
Asked how the smugglers could flee given the stormy seas, Marini said the migrants were being interviewed to see if the smugglers might be mingled among them.