Italian authorities have begun investigating what happened to a cargo ship intercepted with 900 migrants on board and no crew. At least four migrants have died, after apparently trying to escape to Europe from Syria.
It was a disaster narrowly averted, according to the Italian Navy on Wednesday, that it intercepted a cargo ship with 900, mostly Syrian, refugees on board before the vessel completed its collision course with the rocky shoreline.
News agency Reuters, quoting an Italian Red Cross spokeswoman, said at least four of the migrants had died, and that one woman had gone into labor as the passengers began to be brought ashore in the southwestern Italian town of Gallipoli.
Having got into difficulties after heading up the rescue mission for the Norman Atlantic ferry disaster, the Moldovan-flagged Blue Sky M dispatched a distress signal on Tuesday, prompting Italy's coast guard to send helicopters.
A 'race against the clock'
Six officers boarded the ship, where they found no crew, but an engine locked on a course heading straight for the coast of Puglia, which is mostly rocks and cliffs. After some frantic moments on the bridge, the officers were able to unlock the engine and bring the boat under control just five miles (eight kilometers) from the mainland. They then guided the ship into the port of Gallipoli.
"It was a real race against the clock, " said coast guard spokesman Filippo Marini, adding that it was "a difficult and delicate operation, but they managed to do it." The coast guard's official Twitter account declared that a "massacre" had been avoided.
The Greek Coast Guard originally responded to the distress call, but after a very cursory check, allowed the Blue Sky M to continue on its way near the island of Corfu.
It is believed that the crew were human traffickers, who are known to jump ship when they suspect they will be intercepted by police or military. The origin and the final destination of the ship are still unknown as the Italian authorities begin the process of identifying the refugees, who are now being housed in public buildings.
One man suspected to have been involved with the traffickers was arrested in Gallipoli, according to Reuters.
The Italian Coast Guard has vast experience in rescuing scores of people fleeing conflict in their homeland via the Mediterranean Sea. More than 170,000 people have landed on Italy's shore in 2014 alone, and hundreds if not thousands more have perished in their attempt to make the crossing. That number is likely to increase as the conflicts in Libya and Syria show no sign of stopping.
es/tj (AFP, Reuters)