The Syrian migrants on board the cargo ship Ezadeen have told Italian authorities they paid thousands of euros each to cross the Mediterranean. The ship was left crewless heading towards the Italian coast.
Italian investigators began piecing together the stories of the Ezadeen's passengers on Saturday, after the ship arrived in the southern Italian port of Corigliano Calabro.
Initial estimates were that some 450 people had been crammed onto the ship, which was intended only for carrying livestock, but Italian officials later said they had counted some 359 people. They were mostly men, but there were also dozens of women and minors on board and it was reported that eight of the children did not have their parents with them.
The Syrians had told police they had each paid between $4,000 and $8,000 (3,300 - 6,600 euros) for their passage.
"These are people of a certain economic means. They were well dressed," a local Prefect's Office official, Emanuela Greco, told the Associated Press.
The migrants, all of them from Syria which has been caught up in civil war for four years, also told authorities that they had been flown from Lebanon to Turkey, from where they set sail on December 31. On arriving in Italy, they were taken to shelters around the country, where they can apply for asylum.
The Ezadeen rescue began Friday when a coast guard helicopter spotted the ship drifting in rough seas south of Italy. It's thought that the human traffickers who arranged the journey set the cargo ship on autopilot before abandoning it, the same tactic used in recent days with another cargo ship full of almost 800 mainly Syrians, the Blue Sky M.
Cosenza Police Chief Luigi Liguori told reporters the Ezadeen migrants had reported that the smugglers wore hoods so they could not be identified.
Including the Norman Atlantic passenger ferry fire, this is the third major maritime rescue operation involving Italy this past week.
se/nm (AFP, AP, Reuters, dpa)