ROME — Italian authorities took control Tuesday of a cargo ship carrying hundreds of migrants after the crew disappeared and set it on a programmed route to crash into a coast, officials said.
The alarm was first raised about the Moldovan-flagged Blue Sky M after a passenger sent a distress call earlier Tuesday when the ship was off Greece. Greek authorities scrambled a navy frigate and helicopter, but the captain said the vessel wasn't in distress and didn't require assistance.
The ship then headed on its own toward Italy. As it neared Santa Maria di Leuca, on the southernmost tip of the "heel" of boot-shaped Italy, Italian port authorities dispatched two helicopters as a precaution and boarded the ship with a team of six coast guard officials.
Coast guard spokesman Cmdr. Filippo Marini said the team took control of the ship after determining there was no crew to be found. He said the Italians "avoided disaster" by interrupting the programmed route that would have had the ship crash into shore.
He said the motor had been blocked, and that the Italian crew was trying to unblock it so that it could be safely brought into port.
Tens of thousands of migrants and refugees, most fleeing conflict or poverty in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, attempt to reach the European Union each year, most heading by sea to Italy or Greece.
The smugglers who organize the trips often abandon the ships before they reach shore to avoid arrest.
The operation came two days after a Greek-operated ferry caught fire between Greece and Italy with the loss of at least 11 lives, prompting a two-day search and rescue effort.