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Rescue teams reach migrant ship off Italian coast

© FRANCE 24 (screengrab) | The Ezadeen, a Sierra Leone-registered cargo ship, was abandoned by its crew off the southwestern coast of Italy with with 450 migrants on board

Video by Richelle HARRISON PLESSE

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2015-01-02

European coast guards on Friday secured a cargo ship with 450 migrants on board, which was drifting off the coast of Italy in rough seas. The vessel was towed to Crotone port, FRANCE 24 has learned.

A dramatic, hours-long rescue mission in choppy waters ended Friday morning, when the Italian navy took control of the 73-metre-long (240-foot-long) Sierra Leone-registered Ezadeen, which had been abandoned by its crew off the southwestern coast of Italy.

Six coast guard officers were lowered from a helicopter onto the deck of the vessel, according to an Italian naval official.

FRANCE 24 has learned that the Ezadeen was towed to the Italian port of Crotone.

Earlier Friday, AP reported that an Icelandic coast guard ship, part of a new European patrol force to aid migrants at sea, was responsible for towing the cargo vessel to Italy.

Migrants, including children and pregnant women, believed to be Syrian

Children and pregnant women were among the migrants, most of whom were believed to be Syrian, according to Italian Coast Guard Cmdr. Filippo Marini. The Sierra-Leone-flagged cargo ship apparently set sail from Turkey, he said.

A migrant on board the drifting vessel had called for help saying, “we're without crew, we're heading towards the Italian coast and we have no one to steer,'' Marini told reporters.

Prior to losing power, the almost 50-year-old ship had been moving at a brisk seven knots and had been spotted by a coast guard plane 80 miles offshore shortly after nightfall.

‘Disturbing trend’ of crew, smugglers abandoning ships

The Ezadeen is the second cargo ship full of migrants to be abandoned while still sailing this week. Days earlier, the Italian Coast Guard in a daring attempt, lowered officials onto another, Moldovan-flagged cargo vessel so they could take control of the ship, which was only a few miles from crashing into the Italian coast.

“This seems to be a disturbing new trend we’re seeing, with people smugglers sending their ships on to the high seas and then abandoning the migrants before they get close to the coast so that the smugglers can avoid arrest and prosecution,” said FRANCE 24’s Josephine McKenna, reporting from Rome.

More than 170,000 migrants were intercepted or needed rescue by the Italian navy, coast guard and air force patrols last year. This apparently new technique by smugglers of abandoning a ship after setting it on a crash course complicates rescue efforts, Marini told Italian state radio, "but the important thing is there are lives to be saved.''

Death toll of ferry fire disaster could mount

The migrant boat dramas have come as Italy grapples with the aftermath of the Norman Atlantic ferry disaster in which at least 13 people died following an onboard fire that erupted before dawn on Sunday in waters off Albania.

Reporting from Rome, FRANCE 24’s McKenna said the Norman Atlantic was towed into southern Italian port city of Brindisi Friday and an investigation was underway.

“Italian investigators are anxious to find out just how many victims there may still be aboard that vessel – people who may have been trapped in their cars, trapped in the lower decks, possibly migrants who were illegally stowed in the lower decks of the vessel,” explained McKenna, adding that Italian authorities believe the death toll of the Norman Atlantic disaster could rise.

The ferry fire comes after a record year for people fleeing conflict and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and Asia attempting to reach Europe by sea.

More than 170,000 people have been rescued by Italy in the last 14 months and hundreds, possibly thousands, have perished trying to make the crossing.

They are almost invariably under the control of ruthless traffickers who earn thousands of dollars for every person they put to sea from Libya and other departure points in North Africa.

Increasingly, the traffickers appear to have decided that the best way to get their human cargoes to Europe is to put to sea and then abandon the boats.

Since the onset of winter they have been using bigger boats than the converted fishing boats and dinghies they previously favoured.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and AP)

Date created : 2015-01-02


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