A ship abandoned by its crew and left drifting with 450 migrants on board reached Italy’s jagged southern coast on Friday, ending the second gruelling “ghost ship” rescue operation this week.
Women and children were among hundreds of migrants left stranded aboard the Ezadeen, which docked in the port of Corigliano Calabro around 11 pm (2200 GMT) after a delicate operation by the Italian navy to take control of the boat.
Six coastguard officers were earlier lowered from a helicopter onto the deck of the Sierra Leone-flagged vessel so she could be towed the 25 miles to the Italian coast.
The rescue is the latest in a series of maritime operations Italy has mounted in recent days as it struggles with a record wave of migrants making the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean.
On Wednesday, the navy faced more drama after it stopped another crewless “ghost ship” drifting in its waters with nearly 800 migrants on board.
Adding to the drama, on Friday another crew brought the burned-out ferry Norman Atlantic into the Italian port of Brindisi, six days after a fire killed 13 passengers and forced the rescue of 477.
The appearance of the two drifting boats full of migrants within a matter of days has raised concerns that smugglers have started abandoning large boats full of people off the coast of Europe as a new tactic to maximise profits from their ruthless trade.
Italian media reported that most of the 450 migrants found on board the 240ft Ezadeen were from Syria, where millions of people have been displaced by nearly four years of civil war.
The livestock vessel had been en route from Famagusta in Turkish-controlled Cyprus to the southern French port of Sete, but had first stopped at the Syrian port of Tartus, according to a shipping website.
Before it came to a halt, the nearly 50-year-old Ezadeen had been moving at seven knots, and was 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, according to Captain Filippo Marini, Italian navy spokesman.
“We are alone, there is no one, help us!” the woman cried, he said.
The coastguard asked for assistance from Icelandic patrol boat Tyr, which was in the area on a mission with the European Union’s border agency Frontex, but rough weather conditions made boarding impossible.
Once the Ezadeen had run out of fuel, five Tyr crew members were winched onto the merchant ship by helicopter to care for passengers until Italian coastguard officers arrived to take control.
“The migrants aboard were visibly distressed but overall in good medical condition. They have been provided with food, water and basic medical assistance,” a Frontex statement said on Friday.