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Fear grows as ship carrying 400 migrants goes adrift in Mediterranean Sea

A Berlin-based volunteer rescue group said Malta had ordered two merchant ships nearby to not conduct rescues, leaving the migrants in imminent danger of death.

Fears were growing for the safety of around 400 migrants Monday who had been left adrift in the Mediterranean Sea after the captain abandoned the vessel and left it at the risk of capsizing, a volunteer organization said.

The ship was in the shared search-and-rescue zone of Malta and Italy, the charity Alarm Phone, which picks up calls from migrant vessels in distress, said in a tweet.

"A woman reported the seriousness of the conditions on board. The captain left and there is nobody who can steer the boat," it said.

"The 400 people cannot reach safety on their own, authorities need to urgently send rescue!" Alarm Phone said in a separate tweet.

Several people required medical attention, it said, including a child, a pregnant woman and a person with physical disability.

The people on board were panicking, Alarm Phone said, with the lower deck full of water and some migrants even jumping into the water fearing a capsize.

"They said they ran out of fuel & are taking out incoming water with buckets," it added.

Sea-Watch, a Berlin-based volunteer rescue organization, said the ship was "sailing very slowly" toward Italy.

"Due to the number of people on the boat and the current weather conditions, there is an urgent risk that the boat will capsize," it told NBC News in a statement Monday.

The ship was last located west of Malta, between Greece and Italy, at 2:30 a.m. ET, Sea-Watch said, urging the Maltese authorities to initiate a rescue operation.

"Instead, however, merchant ships are instructed to simply dispense gasoline so that the boat can sail to Italy on its own, which is terribly dangerous," it said.

A merchant ship had accompanied the migrant boat for a few hours during the night, supplying it with fuel, water and food, it added.

Maltese authorities didn't respond to requests for comment.

Migrants fleeing poverty and conflict have increasingly risked their lives in recent years, undertaking the treacherous journey from Northern Africa to reach Europe on flimsy boats, and often being smuggled.

Last week, 440 migrants were rescued off Malta after a complex 11-hour operation in stormy seas by the Geo Barents vessel of the Doctors Without Borders charity.

Nearby, in Tunisia, at least 24 migrants were killed when their overloaded boat sank last week.

In March alone, at least 175 migrants were either reported dead or missing, according to the International Organization for Migration's Missing Migrants Project.