Almost 1,000 illegal immigrants landed in Italy yesterday after threatening to throw babies into the sea if their rusting ship was turned back.
The 240ft Monica had been spotted in international waters during the night.
When Italian coastguard boats drew alongside, the crews were shocked to see men and women on board begin dangling the infants over the side.
The refugees – mostly Kurds and many said to be heading for Britain – calmed down only when they were assured they would not be turned away from Italy.
The ship was towed to the Sicilian port of Catania, where 400 men, 200 women and 361 children were taken to Red Cross shelters.
A 21-year-old woman had earlier been lifted off by helicopter after giving birth to a girl. They were doing well in hospital last night.
Officials said most of the refugees were suffering from exhaustion and sea sickness.
Italy’s long coastline makes it one of the EU’s main targets for migrants. Many head north to Milan, hoping to hide in trucks and trains to the Channel ports.
Last week government officials said 3,000 illegal immigrants had been intercepted in the first two months of this year and warned of a new influx in the spring.
The Monica was the largest single arrival for nearly five years. A coastguard-spokesman told of the drama when the ship, illegally flying the flag of Tonga, was intercepted.
He said: ‘When officers tried to draw alongside they were shocked to see those on board threaten to throw babies overboard.
‘They were hanging them over the side and told the coastguards not to come any closer or they would let go. Our men had never seen anything like it.
‘They only calmed down and let us on board when we assured them they were in Italian waters and they would not be taken back to where they had sailed from.
‘I understand they are mostly Kurds and many have said they were using Italy as an entry point before heading towards Britain.’
Officials said originally that the Monica was spotted by a French warship which alerted Italian authorities.
But interior minister Claudia Scajola said later that intelligence services had been monitoring the ship since March 12 after a tip-off that ‘an international criminal’ was on board.
He said the immigrants would be granted asylum and Sicily would be given emergency funds to cope with them.
Italian officials said they were still not sure whether the Monica had sailed from Lebanon or the Turkish part of Cyprus. The ship’s crew were being held by police.
The Archbishop of Catania, Luigi Bommarito, was at the dockside to greet the Monica in what he called ‘a gesture of solidarity’.
He said: ‘I’m here to appeal to people not to close their hearts and doors to people trying to survive. We mustn’t forget that in the last century many immigrants also left Italy.’