Italy finds 700 migrants on 'drifting' ship

Italy finds 700 migrants on 'drifting' ship

ROME - Agence France-Presse
Italy finds 700 migrants on drifting ship

Migrants wait early on Dec. 31 aboard the Moldovan-flagged ship Blue SKy M. in the port of Gallipoli, in southeastern of Italy. AFP Photo

Italy's navy on Dec. 30 said it had taken control of a ship carrying some 700 migrants, including a heavily pregnant woman, after it issued a distress call near the Greek island of Corfu.

Coastguards flown out to the ship by helicopter found hundreds of mainly Syrian illegal migrants on board, Italian media reported, citing military sources.

"Coastguard personnel have boarded a cargo ship adrift with 700 migrants," the Italian navy said in a tweet late on Dec. 30.

A frigate, a Greek navy helicopter and two patrol vessels were dispatched to rescue the Moldovan-flagged Blue Sky M after it issued a distress signal in Greek waters and reports emerged of gunmen on board.

But an inspection of the boat, which was travelling to Italy, revealed "no (mechanical) problems and nothing suspicious on the boat", a spokeswoman for the port police told AFP.

The ship was allowed to continue its journey before it was intercepted by Italian coastguards, who suspected it had a cargo of illegal migrants and was heading for the coast on autopilot.

The latest safety scare in the Adriatic comes after at least 13 people were killed in a huge rescue operation to save an Italian ferry that burst into flames in stormy seas on Dec. 28.

Both rescue operations have had to combat strong winds and stormy conditions, according to port police.        

The Blue Sky M was expected to arrive in the port of Gallipoli, in the southeast of Italy, later Dec. 30, according to a statement from the navy.

Italy has picked up 2,300 people from troubled boats over the Christmas period, lifting to more than 170,000 the number of migrants from North Africa registered as reaching Italian soil this year.

The conflict in Syria and Iraq and repression in Eritrea have been the two biggest factors behind the migrant surge this year with Syrian and Eritrean nationals accounting for over half the arrivals in Italy.