Italy has sent a helicopter to meet a cargo ship alleged to be carrying hundreds of people attempting to illegally migrate into Europe. Greek authorities had previously received a distress call from someone aboard.
The Italian air force has sent a helicopter carrying coast guard officials to investigate the Moldovan-flagged Blue Sky M cargo ship, which was about 20 miles (30 kilometers) off the southernmost tip of the "heel" of the boot-shaped nation.
According to the air force, the helicopter was sent to meet the ship as a precaution and see if there were any problems on board.
Earlier Tuesday, someone on board the Blue Sky M (pictured above, archive image) had issued a distress signal. The Associated Press quoted an unnamed Greek coast guard official as saying the complainant called emergency services to say that hundreds of migrants were in need of food, water and blankets. News agencies AFP and Reuters have also cited unconfirmed reports of armed men on board.
Naval and coast guard vessels from Greece were reportedly sent to the scene earlier but the ship's captain said the vessel was not in distress and required no assistance. As a result, the ship continued on towards Italy. The present situation on board remains unclear.
Tragic year for migrants
Each year tens of thousands of people fleeing conflict, poverty or both in the Middle East, Africa and Asia make the dangerous, often fatal attempt to reach the European Union, often via Italy or Greece.
This year, more than 200,000 people fled across the Mediterranean. More than 3,000 died or went missing in their attempt. Conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Libya have contributed to a dramatic rise in people seeking refuge.
This latest incident comes two days after Greek-operated ferry the Norman Atlantic caught fire in nearby waters between Greece and Italy, leading to the loss of at least 13 lives. People attempting to migrate illegally were also feared to have been aboard that ship. Atrocious weather conditions have been reported in the area over recent days.
In late November, a cargo ship carrying more than 700 migrants, believed mainly to be from Syria, landed on the Greek Island of Crete.
se/cmk (AP, AFP, Reuters)