Corigliano: Italian authorities disembarked 360 cold and hungry migrants from a ship left adrift by its crew off the country's coast, with some having paid up to USD 8,000 to traffickers for the perilous journey.
It was the latest in a wave of such incidents involving migrants crossing the Mediterranean to flee conflict and poverty in the Middle East and Africa and attempting to reach Europe by sea.
The migrants have been preyed upon by people smugglers, who have recently resorted to a new tactic of abandoning "ghost ships" full of desperate travellers off European coasts.
Women and children were among hundreds of migrants left stranded aboard the Ezadeen, which docked in the Italian port of Corigliano Calabro around 11:00 pm (local time) yesterday after a delicate operation by the Italian navy to take control of the ageing vessel.
Its arrival was one in a series of maritime dramas that Italy has grappled with in recent days, and which have brought some 2,000 rescued migrants to Italian soil.
Italian prefect Gianfranco Tomao told reporters migrants can now pay traffickers between USD 4,000 and USD 8,000 for passage to Europe.
Passengers aboard the Ezadeen had paid amounts in that range, he said, and the ship was later left to drift in stormy seas off southern Italy without fuel or electricity.
Some confusion remained about whether the vessel's crew jumped ship, or as some passengers suspect, simply peeled off masks they'd worn during the crossing, then melted in among migrant passengers to be rescued as naval ships neared.
Most of the 232 men, 54 women and 74 children aboard are thought to be Syrians fleeing war in their homeland. They were all said to be in good health.
Six coastguard officers were lowered from a helicopter onto the deck of the Sierra Leone-flagged vessel on Friday to set up a tow for the 40 kilometres (25 miles) to the Italian coast.
The nearly 50-year-old Ezadeen was spotted by a coastguard plane 80 miles offshore shortly after nightfall Thursday.
A female migrant raised the alarm over the ship's radio, telling authorities the crew had abandoned the vessel, coastguard spokesman Captain Filippo Marini said.
"We are alone, there is no one, help us!" Marini quoted her as saying.
Icelandic patrol boat Tyr, which was in the area on a mission with the European Union's border agency Frontex, came to the rescue, but rough weather conditions made boarding the ship impossible.