Italian Coast Guard rescues 970 migrants from ship allowed to leave Greek waters

The Italian Coast Guard rescued 970 migrants on Wednesday after smugglers put their cargo ship — located sail in Greek waters the previous day — on automatic pilot heading straight for a crash into the Italian coast and abandoned the command.

The Italian Coast Guard traced the ship’s location after a passenger made a satellite phone call seeking help when the ship was sailing off the coast of Corfu in the northern Ionian Sea. Greek authorities, informed of the call by their Italian colleagues, did not board the vessel but instead contacted the captain who said that assistance was not needed. The ship was subsequently allowed to continue on its course to Italy. It was not clear what port the ship had left from.

Italian officials said the migrants, most believed to be Syrians and including many children and pregnant women, arrived safely in Gallipoli, in Italy’s southeastern Puglia region, before dawn Wednesday. More than 100 migrants were treated for hypothermia.

“It was a race against time,» said Coast Guard Cmdr. Filippo Marini. «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 Mouldovan-flagged Blue Sky M to try to correct the ship’s course.

Marini said the smugglers apparently had left the engine blocked on automatic pilot at a speed of 6 knots (nearly 7 mph) into the coast.

“There would have been death and destruction» if the vessel had crashed into the coast, he added.

Because a storm was churning up the Adriatic Sea, rescuers couldn’t board the ship from nearby Coast Guard vessels. But once on board they unblocked the engine and steered the vessel safely into Gallipoli’s harbor, Marini said.

[The Associated Press/Kathimerini]