A ship crammed full of 970 migrants was abandoned by its crew and set to crash into the Italian coast in what looks to be an elaborate people trafficking operation.
The migrants, thought to be Syrian and Kurdish refugees, were thought to be fleeing their home countries to avoid the ongoing conflict with Islamic State, the Independent reports.
Almost 1,000 people were taken off the Blue Sky M after coastguards moored it in Gallipoli, with over 100 needing treatment for hypothermia.
With targeted campaigns to track and capture gangs dealing in human cargo, it is most likely the ship was set on course to be wrecked before the crew abandoned the craft and thus captured by the authorities.
The warning came when a distress call was received on Tuesday afternoon from the ship as it sailed off the coast of Corfu, close to where a fire on a ferry had resulted in the deaths of at least 13 people despite a significant rescue effort.
Following the alert, Greek and Italian authorities tailed the ship and were reportedly told by a passenger on board that people were without water, food and blankets, causing the Greek authorities to launch a humanitarian rescue mission involving a navy frigate and a helicopter.
But after contact was made with the ship’s Captain he told them the vessel was not in distress and did not need any help. However, it then departed its scheduled route from Korfez in Turkey to Croatia with a sharp turn to the West towards Italy, around the time the distress call was made.
Photos posted online by the Italian Red Cross showed paramedics and ambulance crews crowding on the dockside waiting for the ship as crowds of people lined the deck.
On its approach to the country’s southernmost tip, Santa Maria di Leuca, port authorities dispatched two helicopters as a precaution and a team of six coast guard officials boarded the ship.
A spokesman for the Italian coastguard, Commander Filippo Marini, said the team took control after realising there was no crew on board. He said the action taken by the Italians “avoided disaster” by stopping the ship crashing into the shore. They reported that the motor had also been blocked.
An official told the BBC World Service that the passengers were taken away in coaches but nothing more is known about their future travel plans or if they will be given the right of asylum in the EU.
Italy and Greece are the target countries for thousands of migrants fleeing conflict, persecution or frequently in search of a better life they think they can get in a European country.
Once they cross the waters to the islands in the Mediterranean they then claim asylum, with many heading north towards Calais, hoping to stow away on a ferry or the eurotunnel to get to the UK where they have been told they can get a free education, health care and housing.
The EU rules state that the country they first land in is the one who assesses whether they are refugees or not, but with the burden for processing the huge numbers – and the scorn poured on Italy in particular after one boat caught fire costing the lives of hundreds who were being trafficked by criminal gangs – the incentive to do the work on behalf of the other EU countries is not there.