Rome: Italian authorities disembarked some 360 cold and hungry migrants yesterday from a ship abandoned by its crew off the country’s jagged southern coast.
Women and children were among hundreds of migrants left stranded aboard the Ezadeen, which docked in the port of Corigliano Calabro on Friday night after a delicate operation by the Italian navy to take control of the ageing vessel.
It had been left to drift in stormy seas off southern Italy without fuel or electricity.
In the dark, rescuers had first thought that it could be holding up to 450 people but after docking, the authorities revised the count to 360.
Most of the 232 men, 54 women and 74 children aboard are thought to be Syrians fleeing the war in their homeland. They were all said to be in good health.
Six coastguard officers were lowered from a helicopter onto the deck of the Sierra Leone-flagged vessel to set up a tow for 40km 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 drama after it stopped another crewless “ghost” ship left drifting with nearly 800 migrants on board.
Authorities said passengers on the Ezadeen had each paid $4,000-8,000 for the journey to Europe. The passengers said they were flown from Lebanon to Turkey, where they set sail on December 31 aboard the ship that normally carries cattle.
According to the migrants, the crew members masked their faces throughout the journey, fuelling suspicions they may not actually have abandoned ship but mixed in among the migrants while awaiting rescue.
The nearly 50-year-old Ezadeen was spotted by a coastguard plane 80 miles offshore shortly after nightfall on Thursday.
A female refugee raised the alarm over the ship’s radio, telling the coastguard that the crew had abandoned the vessel, coastguard spokesman Captain Filippo Marini said.
“We are alone, there is no one, help us!” Marini quoted her as saying.
An Icelandic patrol boat Tyr, which was in the area on a mission with the European Union’s border agency Frontex, came to the rescue but rough weather conditions made boarding the ship impossible.
A European Commission spokesman said that fighting the smuggling of migrants would “continue to be a priority” of the EU in 2015.