Italian coastguard boards abandoned migrant ship

Sierra Leone-flagged ship left drifting by smugglers with 450 people aboard

Sierra Leone-flagged Ezadeen vessel, carrying hundreds of migrants, is towed by the Icelandic Coast Guard vessel Tyr in rough seas in the Mediterranean sea off Italy’s south coast. Photograph: Icelandic Coast Guard/ Handout/Reuters.

Sierra Leone-flagged Ezadeen vessel, carrying hundreds of migrants, is towed by the Icelandic Coast Guard vessel Tyr in rough seas in the Mediterranean sea off Italy’s south coast. Photograph: Icelandic Coast Guard/ Handout/Reuters.

 

For the second time in three days, the Italian authorities scrambled on Friday to rescue hundreds of migrants aboard an aging vessel heading in rough seas toward the mainland after its crew abandoned it.

One of the people on board the vessel, the Ezadeen, had sent a message saying, “We‘re without crew, we‘re heading toward the Italian coast, and we have no one to steer,“ the Associated Press reported.

The Italian authorities said they sent a helicopter toward the ship, sailing under the flag of Sierra Leone, to allow coast guard officials and doctors to be lowered onto the vessel.

“Because of the difficult weather conditions, the ship can only be boarded from the air,“ the Italian air force said in a statement.

After several hours of effort in rough seas, an Icelandic coast guard ship took the vessel under tow, according to Cmdr Filippo Marini of the Italian Coast Guard. Children and pregnant women were among the migrants, most of whom were believed to be Syrian, he said.

In a post on Twitter, the Italian coast guard said the vessel was carrying 450 migrants and was heading “without a crew toward the coast of Puglia.”

The ship was first been spotted by a coast guard plane and the Icelandic patrol boat, part of a deployment by the European border agency Frontex. But the seas were too rough to transfer migrants from the vessel, about 60km off Capo di Leuca on Italy‘s southeastern tip.

The 50-year-old, 240-foot-long vessel had apparently veered off its original stated course to southern France.

“We know that it left from a Turkish port and was abandoned by its crew,” coastguard spokesman Filippo Marini told SkyTG24 television. “When we hailed the ship to ask about its status, a migrant woman responded, saying, ‘We are alone and we have no one to help us.’”

It had been put on a collision course for the Italian coast before running out of fuel, he said.

With record numbers of migrants heading toward Italy, often embarking in North Africa, the rescue unfolded just days after the Italian authorities boarded a freighter, the Moldovan-registered Blue Sky M, carrying more than 700 people, many of them fleeing Syria‘s civil war and paying traffickers thousands to do so. That vessel also seemed to have been abandoned by its crew.

Italian officers were lowered onto the Blue Sky M to bring it under control and to prevent it from crashing into the rocky coastline.

Last month, the UN refugee agency said more than 200,000 refugees and migrants had arrived in European countries in 2014, compared to 60,000 in 2013.

A large majority of them - 160,000 - were seeking refuge in Italy. Almost half the migrants were citizens of Syria and Eritrea, which is in the Horn of Africa.

Some analysts said that traffickers seemed increasingly prepared to use old freighters rather than smaller vessels since Italy phased out an ambitious search-and-rescue operation called Mare Nostrum. That program covered a much wider area of the Mediterranean than the replacement coordinated by Frontex.

“We have seen increasing use of old cargo ships ready to be dismantled over the past two months,“ Carlotta Sami, a spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency, said. “They usually don‘t even have any electronic equipment on board.”

Traffickers lock the steering on course for the coast before escaping in smaller vessels, she said.

Reuters/New York Times