Updated at 12:15 p.m. ET
Hundreds of Syrian migrants aboard a ship abandoned by smugglers off the coast of Italy have been taken under tow and are bound for an as-yet-undetermined safe harbor.
An Icelandic coast guard ship, part of a European patrol force set up to aid migrants at sea, is towing the Ezadeen, a livestock carrier with some 450 migrants aboard, after smugglers operating the vessel abandoned it in rough seas, according to Italian coast guard Cmdr. Filippo Marini.
The 240-foot ship, with children and pregnant women aboard, most Syrian, is thought to have departed from Turkey, Marini says.
“The alarm was raised in a distress call from one of the migrants using the maritime radio on board, who told the Italian coast guard: ‘We’re without crew, we’re heading toward the Italian coast and we have no-one to steer.’
“The Ezadeen was built nearly 50 years ago and is a livestock carrier. It appears to be registered to a Lebanese company and has come under the control of human traffickers.”
“The Ezadeen had been drifting without power about 40 nautical miles off the coast … ‘We know that it left from a Turkish port and was abandoned by its crew,’ [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 but ran out of fuel, he said. A similar tactic was used by the crew of a ship which, on Tuesday, put out a distress call as it passed the Greek island of Corfu on its way into the Adriatic Sea.”
The Ezadeen is just the latest vessel to be abandoned by smugglers in the Mediterranean, an occurrence that has become almost routine in recent months.
As recently as this week, the Blue Sky M, a cargo ship carrying more than 600 mostly Syrian migrants, was found on autopilot off southern Italy after its crew apparently jumped ship. The Italian navy boarded the vessel and brought it safely into the port of Gallipoli.
Last month, another cargo ship with about 700 would-be migrants from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq who were trying to reach Europe, was taken into tow by the Greek coast guard after the vessel’s engine failed.
As NPR’s Joanna Kakissis reports, officials estimate that in 2014, more than 30,000 illegal migrants from the Middle East and Southwest Asia have arrived in Greece alone. Amnesty International estimates that 2,500 have died this year trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea.
The United Nations High Commissioner For Refugees says another 160,000 seaborne migrants arrived in Italy in 2014 until November.
UNHCR spokesman William Spindler told the BBC that the said the agency “is aware of at least four incidents in the last two months where people smugglers cram hundreds of migrants and refugees in big cargo boats and then send them uncrewed in the direction of Italy.”