For the second time this week, an aging cargo ship packed with migrants was abandoned off the coast of Italy, said authorities who scrambled Friday to rescue about 450 people stranded in rough seas.
The tactic of abandoning large ships carrying migrants appears to be part of a new trend by smugglers who prey on those desperate to escape war, poverty and oppressive governments in the Middle East and Africa.
Syrian migrants tend to be better off than their African counterparts and are willing to pay thousands of dollars to avoid traveling in the small, rickety boats that have long been used by smugglers in the Mediterranean.
A migrant aboard the Ezadeen, a 50-year-old livestock carrier sailing under the Sierra Leone flag, used the ship's radio to send a distress call, telling the Italian Coast Guard, "We're without crew. We're heading toward the Italian coast, and we have no one to steer," the BBC reported.
The Italian authorities requested assistance from an Icelandic vessel serving in a program coordinated by the European border control agency, Frontex.
"A rescue operation was initially impossible due to the very bad weather conditions and the fact that the freighter was proceeding at full speed," Frontex said in a statement. "It was not until some hours later, when the vessel carrying the migrants ran out of fuel, that five Icelandic officers were able to get on board on the vessel, attach a tow rope and bring the ship under control."
The Italian Coast Guard used a helicopter to lower six officers onto the ship, which they manned as it was towed, the statement said. The ship was headed toward Italy's southern coast, but its destination remained unclear because of the adverse weather conditions.
"The migrants aboard were visibly distressed but overall in good medical condition – they have been provided with food, water and basic medical assistance," Frontex said.
Most of them were believed to be Syrians, and they included women and children, Italian Coast Guard Cmdr. Filippo Marini told reporters.
Friday's rescue came after another cargo ship was abandoned at sea with nearly 800 migrants aboard, most of them also Syrians.
Authorities said the Moldovan-flagged Blue Sky M was left on autopilot and was on a collision course with the rocky Italian coast when members of the Italian Coast Guard took control. They redirected the ship to Gallipoli, where it docked Wednesday.
Vincent Cochetel, the U.N. refugee agency's Europe director, expressed alarm Friday at the new trend, which he said developed as Italy concluded a major search-and-rescue operation for migrants at sea.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees "thanks the Italian authorities for their response to these latest incidents, despite the phasing down of the Mare Nostrum operation," Cochetel said in a statement. "We have expressed concerns over the ending of this operation without a similar European search-and-rescue operation to replace it. This will undoubtedly increase the risk for those trying to find safety in Europe."
More than 3,000 people perished at sea last year while trying to reach Europe, according to UNHRC figures. They were among more than 200,000 believed to have attempted the journey.