CORIGLIANO - A ship abandoned by its crew and left drifting with 450 migrants on board reached Italy's jagged southern coast on Friday, ending the second gruelling "ghost ship" rescue operation this week.
Women and children were among hundreds of migrants left stranded aboard the Ezadeen, which docked in the port of Corigliano Calabro around 11 pm (2200 GMT) after a delicate operation by the Italian navy to take control of the boat.
Six coastguard officers were earlier lowered from a helicopter onto the deck of the Sierra Leone-flagged vessel to set up a tow for the 40 kilometres (25 miles) to the Italian coast.
The rescue is the latest in a series of maritime operations Italy has mounted in recent days as it struggles with a record wave of migrants making the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean.
On Wednesday, the navy faced more drama after it stopped another crewless "ghost" ship left drifting in its waters with nearly 800 migrants on board.
Adding to the drama, on Friday another crew brought the burned-out ferry Norman Atlantic into the Italian port of Brindisi, six days after a fire killed 13 passengers and forced the rescue of 477.
The appearance of the two drifting boats full of migrants within a matter of days has raised concerns that smugglers have started abandoning large boats full of people off the coast of Europe as a new tactic to maximise profits from their ruthless trade.
Italian media reported that most of the 450 migrants found on board the 73-metre-long (240-foot-long) Ezadeen were from Syria, where millions of people have been displaced by nearly four years of civil war.
The livestock vessel had been en route from Famagusta in northern Turkish-controlled Cyprus to the southern French port of Sete, but had first stopped at the Syrian port of Tartus, according to a shipping website.
'We are alone'
Before it came to a halt, the nearly 50-year-old Ezadeen had been moving at seven knots, and was spotted by a coastguard plane 80 miles offshore shortly after nightfall.
A woman refugee on board was able to operate the ship's radio and told the coastguard that the crew had jumped ship, Italian navy spokesman Captain Filippo Marini said.
"We are alone, there is no one, help us!" the woman cried, he said.
The coastguard asked for assistance from Icelandic patrol boat Tyr, which was in the area on a mission with the European Union's border agency Frontex, but rough weather conditions made boarding impossible.
Once the Ezadeen had run out of fuel, five Tyr crew members were winched onto the merchant ship by helicopter to care for passengers until Italian coastguard officers arrived to take control.
"The migrants aboard were visibly distressed but overall in good medical condition. They have been provided with food, water and basic medical assistance," a Frontex statement said Friday.
The incident marked the third sea rescue operation Italy's navy has been forced to mount in a week.
The first came with the deadly fire that broke out on the Norman Atlantic ferry Sunday between Greece and Italy.
Italian prosecutors fear the ferry could contain the bodies of still undiscovered illegal immigrants and unregistered passengers.
Bari prosecutor Giuseppe Volpe said almost 500 people may have been aboard - far above the 474 officially on the manifest, and prompting fears the current death toll of 13 may rise once the ferry is fully searched in Brindisi.
Volpe said it had been "established" that illegal immigrants were aboard, something confirmed by several of the rescued passengers. The search is expected to concentrate on trucks parked in the car deck where the fire started.
New smuggling tactics
A few days earlier, a ship carrying nearly 770 migrants was found drifting towards the rocks off Italy's southeastern shore.
The Blue Sky M freighter was on autopilot, after having been abandoned by the people smugglers who had sailed in from Turkey via Greek waters.
The Moldovan-registered vessel got within five miles - or 45 minutes' sailing time - of running aground before six navy officers were lowered on to the ship by helicopter, and succeeded in bringing it under control.
The vessel's passengers included some 60 children and two pregnant women, one of whom gave birth on board, according to the Italian Red Cross.
Many of the migrants on the ship were treated for hypothermia or injuries including broken limbs.
More than 170,000 people have been rescued at sea by Italy in the last 14 months, and hundreds, possibly thousands, have perished trying to make the crossing.
The migrants 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 be abandoning their human cargo at sea, with more now using bigger vessels than the converted fishing boats and other craft they previously favoured.
The International Organisation for Migration estimated Friday in Geneva that people smugglers grossed over US$1 million (S$1.3 million) on just one of the abandoned ships alone.