By Elisabetta Povoledo (RNA)
VERBANIA, Italy — For the second time in three days, Italian authorities found themselves racing to rescue hundreds of migrants from an aging freighter that traffickers had pointed toward Italy and then abandoned, leaving the ship to plow through wintry seas on a collision course with the coastline.
Rescuers on Friday were able to board the ship only after it ran out of fuel and stopped, and by afternoon they were towing it toward shore. But the episode led officials to suggest that traffickers have hit on a new tactic to extract greater profits from human misery while eluding apprehension.
The latest drama came as the Ezadeen, a livestock carrier sailing under the flag of Sierra Leone, headed for the coast of southeastern Italy with an estimated 450 people on board.
There were reports that after six days at sea, the migrants, including pregnant women and dozens of children, had exhausted the supplies of food and water.
“When we called the ship to ask about its status, a migrant woman responded, saying, ‘We are alone, and we have no one to help us,’” said Commander Filippo Marini, an Italian coast guard spokesman. He said the ship, which departed from a Turkish port, had been left on autopilot. Paramedics reported that the migrants, most of whom were believed to be Syrian, were in good health.
Until recently, migrants coming to Italy by sea arrived primarily in smaller boats that sailed north from North Africa.
The shift to steel-hulled cargo ships approaching from the east denotes a new strategy, an Italian naval official said, and traffickers are “secure in the knowledge that no one is going to allow a boat to crash on Italian or Greek shores.”
In record numbers, fugitives from war zones or repressive regimes often pay up to $6,000 each for a chance to pursue security and new lives in Europe, braving not dangers at sea, but also hostility toward immigrants across the Continent.
The first rescue vessel to come to the aid of the stricken Ezadeen was an Icelandic patrol boat sailing as part of a program coordinated by Frontex, the European border agency. But the seas were too rough for rescuers to cross from one vessel to the other, and an Italian helicopter came to airlift coast guard officials onto the boat.
After several hours of effort, and after the 240-foot Ezadeen had run out of fuel, the Icelandic coast guard ship took it under tow, Marini said.
Some analysts said the change in the traffickers’ tactics had occurred since Italy phased out an ambitious and costly search-and-rescue operation called Mare Nostrum, which located and rescued dozens of smaller boats used by migrants. That program has been replaced by one called Triton, which involves 19 nations and is coordinated by Frontex.