By Steve Scherer
ROME (Reuters) - A ship carrying hundreds of migrants has been abandoned by its crew in rough seas in the Mediterranean off Italy's south coast in the second such incident in three days, the Italian coastguard said on Friday.
Coastguards managed to take control of the vessel, the Sierra Leone-flagged Ezadeen, after landing on it by helicopter, a statement said. Facing difficult weather conditions, they are trying to take the vessel to an Italian port.
The cargo ship had been drifting powerless after running out of fuel about 40 miles from Italy's southern coast with as many as 450 people onboard. The ship was built almost 50 years ago to carry livestock, a Website tracking maritime movements said.
"We know that it left from a Turkish port and was abandoned by its crew," coastguard spokesman Filippo Marini told SkyTG24 television.
"When we hailed the ship to ask about its status, a migrant woman responded, saying, 'We are alone and we have no one to help us.'"
It had been put on a collision course for the Italian coast before running out of fuel, he said.
The nationality of the migrants was not yet known, a coastguard spokesman said, but there are women and children on board. It is the third such migrant ship in the past two weeks as smugglers turn to abandoning old ships in a shift in tactics.
On Wednesday, about 800 migrants, mostly Syrian refugees, arrived in Italy after they were apparently abandoned by their ship's crew and set on a crash course for the Italian coast. The coastguard also boarded that vessel and took over navigation.
Two weeks ago, the Italian navy went to the aid of an abandoned cargo ship carrying 850 migrants, diembarking them at a port in Sicily.
Civil war in Syria and anarchy in Libya swelled the number of people crossing the Mediterranean last year. Many of them paid smugglers $1,000-$2,000 to travel.
The United Nations refugee agency says 160,000 seaborne migrants arrived in Italy by November 2014 and a further 40,000 in Greece. Thousands more have died attempting the journey.
Smugglers have changed tactics because Italy has ended its Mare Nostrum maritime search and rescue mission, which makes a crossing in a small boat more risky, and due to increased fighting in Libya, Carlotta Sami, a spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency, told Reuters.
"We have seen increasing use of old cargo ships ready to be dismantled (to smuggle migrants) over the past two months," she said. "The usually don't even have any electronic equipment on board."
The cargo ships are usually carrying mostly Syrian refugees, she said, but also others, including some fleeing fighting in Iraq.
Smugglers set autopilot course in international waters and jump onto a smaller vessel to escape, she said.
Italy discontinued Mare Nostrum partly due to public concern over the 114-million-euro ($137 million) bill the mission racked up in its first year. Human rights groups warned that closing the mission would endanger more lives.