BRINDISI, Italy (AFP) – Italian sailors on Friday managed to take control of a crewless merchant ship as it drifted toward the country’s southern shores in rough seas with 450 migrants on board, in the second such incident in two days.
Six coastguard officers were lowered from a helicopter onto the deck of the Ezadeen as it floated some 40 kilometres (25 miles) off Crotone on Italy’s heel, the navy said.
It marked the second such drama in days for Italy, which is strugg-ling with a record wave of migrants making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean, after the navy on Wednesday stopped another crewless “ghost” ship with hundreds of migrants on board.
Friday’s rescue bid involved the 73-metre-long (240-foot-long) live-stock carrier the Ezadeen, which was meant to be travelling between Famagusta in northern Turkish-controlled Cyprus and the southern French port of Sete, the navy said.
A shipping website, however, said the Sierra Leone-registered vessel had begun its voyage in the Syrian port of Tartus. Thousands of the refugees who have ended up in Italy this year had fled the war-torn country, but most have come via North Africa.
Prior to apparently running of fuel, the almost 50-year-old ship had been moving at a brisk seven knots and had been spotted by a coastguard plane 80 miles offshore shortly after nightfall.
A woman refugee on board was able to operate the ship’s radio and told the coastguard that the crew had jumped ship, Italian navy spokesman Captain Filippo Marini said.
“We are alone, they is no one, help us!” she cried, he said.
The coastguard asked for assistance from Icelandic patrol boat Tyr, which was in the area on a mission with Frontex, the European Union’s border agency.
The Tyr was able to draw along-side the runaway ship, but the weather conditions made boarding impossible.
The Icelandic vessel has three doctors on board who are waiting to be winched on to the merchant ship by helicopter to treat any unwell passengers, the air force said.
On Wednesday Italian sailors intercepted a freighter carrying nearly 770 migrants which had been drifting towards the rocks off Italy’s southeastern shore on autopilot, abandoned by the people smugglers who had steered it from Turkey via Greek waters.