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Italians Rescue Nearly 1,000 Migrants Abandoned at Sea


The Blue Sky M cargo ship, carrying an estimated 900 migrants, is seen at the Gallipoli harbour, southern Italy, Dec. 31, 2014.

In a second high-seas drama this week, six Italian coast guard officers boarded a cargo ship abandoned in the Adriatic Sea with nearly 1,000 migrants on board and managed to steer it to an Italian port early Wednesday.

The Moldovan-flagged cargo ship Blue Sky M arrived at the southern port of Gallipoli with the 970 migrants, most of them believed to be Syrians, a Red Cross spokeswoman told Reuters. The ship was met by Italian Red Cross workers and other emergency personnel.

Medics help migrants in a tent after they arrived onboard the Blue Sky M cargo ship at the Gallipoli harbor, southern Italy, Dec. 31, 2014.
Medics help migrants in a tent after they arrived onboard the Blue Sky M cargo ship at the Gallipoli harbor, southern Italy, Dec. 31, 2014.

The Italian Red Cross retracted an earlier statement that four people were found dead aboard the ship.

The French news agency AFP reported that the migrants included a pregnant woman who went into labor during the drama. An inquest began into how the abandonment of the ship occurred.

The Italian coast guard took over the ship late Tuesday after the found smugglers had put the cargo ship on automatic pilot heading straight for a crash into the Italian coast, then abandoned the vessel.

The coast guard officers were able to regain control of the ship and navigate it to Gallipoli, arriving before dawn Wednesday.

"It was a race against time,'' coast guard commander Filippo Marini told The Associated Press.

"The ship was only a few [nautical] miles away from the coast of Puglia'' on Tuesday night when six coast guard officials were lowered by helicopter onto the bridge of the Blue Sky M to try to correct the ship's course, Marini said.

He told the AP the smugglers apparently had left the engine blocked on automatic pilot at a speed of 6 knots (nearly 7 mph) and heading toward the coast. "There would have been death and destruction" if the vessel had crashed into the coast, he added.

Car ferry disaster

The drama came as Italy and Greece were coping with the aftermath of the Norman Atlantic car ferry disaster that has left at least 13 people dead and dozens more unaccounted for.

Blue Sky M was first spotted earlier Tuesday near the Greek island of Corfu, after someone on board sent out a distress call, saying the ship was in difficulty and that armed men were on board.

Greek officials boarded the ship, found nothing wrong, and sent it on its way.

The Italian coast guard scrambled two helicopters overnight after realizing the ship was headed for disaster.

Civil war in Syria and anarchy in Libya have swelled the number of people crossing the Mediterranean in rickety boats this year, often bound for Italy and Greece.

The United Nations refugee agency said 160,000 seaborne migrants arrived in Italy by November 2014 and another 40,000 in Greece. Thousands more have died attempting the journey.

Some use dangerous and flimsy boats while others pay human smugglers, who often abandon their cargo at sea.

Asked how the smugglers could flee the ship, given the stormy weather in the Adriatic Sea, Marini told the AP the migrants were being interviewed to see if the smugglers might be mingled among them.

Some material for this report came from Reuters, AFP and AP.

Watch a related video by VOA's Zlatica Hoke.

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