Gallipoli (Italy) Dec 31: Italy's coastguard said on Wednesday it had narrowly averted another high seas disaster by intercepting a freighter that was on a collision course with the country's rocky shoreline with more than 900 Syrian refugees on board.
In what was the second maritime drama of recent days, officers revealed that the huge cargo ship's engine had been locked on with the steering set on a direction that would have led to it crashing ashore somewhere in the Puglia region on the "heel" of Italy.
The coastguard, already working flat out because of the Norman Atlantic ferry fire, scrambled two helicopters overnight after realising that the Moldovan-registered Blue Sky M, was headed for disaster. Six coastguard officers boarded the vessel and, after some frantic moments on the bridge, were able to unlock the engines and bring the boat under control just five miles from the coast.
"It was a real race against the clock," coastguard spokesman Filippo Marini said. "Unlocking the engines was a difficult and delicate operation, but they managed to do it."
In a tweet from its official account, the coastguard said a "massacre" had been avoided. The migrants on board, including a heavily pregnant woman whose waters broke during the drama, were taken to the port of Gallipoli as an inquest began into how the alarming incident had occurred.
Greece's coastguard had on Tuesday afternoon received a distress call from someone on board the Blue Sky M who reported that it was being navigated by heavily armed men. A navy frigate, a helicopter and two patrol vessels were dispatched to intercept the boat off the island of Corfu. But after what now appears to have been a very cursory check, the vessel was allowed to continue its journey.
A spokesman for Greek port police told AFP at the time that an inspection had revealed "no (mechanical) problems and nothing suspicious on the boat."
Italian officials suspect that the vessel was then under the control of people smugglers who later jumped ship, as they frequently do in the knowledge that their human cargo will be picked up by navy or merchant ships.
One man suspected of involvement with the traffickers was arrested after the boat arrived in Gallipoli.