BRINDISI: Italian sailors managed on Friday to take control of a crewless merchant ship as it drifted towards 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 off Crotone on Italy’s heel, the navy said.

It marked the second such drama in days for Italy, which is struggling 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.

More than 170,000 rescued by country in 14 months

Friday’s rescue bid involved the 73-metre-long livestock 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 alongside the runaway ship, but the weather conditions made boarding impossible.

The Icelandic vessel had three doctors on board who were waiting to be winched on to the merchant ship by helicopter to treat any sick 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.

The Moldovan-registered Blue Sky M cargo ship got to within five miles — 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.

The vessel’s human cargo included some 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.

The migrant boat dramas have come as Italy grapples with the aftermath of the Norman Atlantic ferry disaster in which at least 13 people died following an onboard fire that erupted before dawn on Sunday in waters off Albania.

They also come after a record year for people fleeing conflict and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and Asia attempting to reach Europe by sea. More than 170,000 people have been rescued by Italy in the last 14 months and hundreds, possibly thousands, have perished trying to make the crossing.

They are almost invariably under the control of ruthless traffickers who earn thousands of dollars for every person they put to sea from Libya and other departure points in North Africa.

Published in Dawn, January 3rd, 2015

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