Air force and coast guard rescue teams fought through gale-force winds yesterday evening in an effort to evacuate hundreds of illegal immigrants from a drifting freighter off the shores of Crete. A Super Puma helicopter, a C-130 air force transport, four coast guard patrol boats from Siteia on the eastern coast of Crete, three freighters sailing in the area and several fishing boats were heading for the vessel, whose name and nationality were not immediately available last night. Some 260 people were believed to be on board. Although initial reports – prompted by a distress signal relayed by Turkish merchant marine authorities in Istanbul – suggested that the 40-meter ship was foundering, it emerged that the freighter was afloat but drifting 37 miles southeast of Siteia due to engine failure. Gale-force winds were blowing in the area. The ship is believed to have set sail from a Turkish harbor for Italy. At the beginning of December, the Syrian-flagged Wael IV freighter clandestinely set around 200 illegal Asian and African immigrants ashore on southern Crete, before running aground. Meanwhile, following an 11-hour hunt by air and land, on Sunday coast guard and police officers on the uninhabited islet of Yioura – near Alonissos in the central Aegean – arrested four Turkish suspected human traffickers who had been hiding on the islet since their 25-meter fishing boat foundered offshore on Thursday after landing 193 illegal immigrants.The migrants are to be deported.