Hundreds of migrants are feared dead after the sinking of a migrant boat off southern Greece early on Wednesday in one of the deadliest migrant disasters in the Mediterranean.
Rescuers saved 104 passengers – including Egyptians, Syrians, Pakistanis, Afghans and Palestinians – and recovered 79 bodies. And the search went on early Thursday for more, with aircraft dropping flares to help search teams.
“It’s one of the biggest (such) operations ever in the Mediterranean,” Greek coast guard spokesman Nikos Alexiou told state ERT TV. “We won’t stop looking.”
The 25- to 30-meter (80- to 100-foot) boat is believed to have left the Tobruk area in Libya with at least 500 people on board.
A photo provided by Greece’s coast guard on Wednesday shows scores of people covering practically every free stretch of the deck on a battered fishing boat that capsized and sank off southern Greece.
Migrant boat refused help from Greece
Greece’s coast guard said it was notified by Italian authorities of the trawler’s presence in international waters. It said in a statement that efforts by its own ships and merchant vessels to assist the boat were repeatedly rebuffed, with people on board insisting they wanted to continue to Italy.
“They categorically refused any help,” Alexiou said.
After that first alert, Frontex aircraft and two merchant ships spotted the boat heading north, according to the Greek coast guard, and more aircraft and ships were sent to the area.
“In the afternoon, a merchant vessel approached the ship and provided it with food and supplies, while the (passengers) refused any further assistance,” a statement said. A second merchant ship later offered more supplies and assistance, which were turned down, it added.
In the evening, a coast guard patrol boat reached the vessel, “but they refused any assistance and said they wanted to continue to Italy.”
The coast guard boat accompanied the migrant vessel and later headed the rescue operation.
Fears that women and children have been trapped in the hold
The ship had been at sea for at least two days, and fears are voiced that women and children may have been trapped in the hold. All people rescued are male.
“The outer deck was full of people, and we presume that the interior (of the vessel) would also have been full,” Alexiou said. “It looks as if there was a shift among the people who were crammed on board, and it capsized.”
Reports say that while a Greek Coast Guard vessel was at the scene, the engine of the fishing vessel stopped working. Panic prevailed, resulting in a sudden movement of people. Due to the weight shift the boat overturned and the migrants found themselves in the water.
104 men on deck were rescued, while those in the cabins – including women and children – were swept to their deaths as the iron vessel sank.
The spot is close to the deepest part of the Mediterranean Sea, and depths of up to 17,000 feet (5,200 meters) could hamper any effort to locate a sunken vessel.
Rescued migrants transferred to Kalamata, Greece
Those rescued were transferred to the nearby port city of Kalamata, where they are temporarily housed. By late Wednesday, 30 migrants were transferred to the hospital in Kalamata, where they were admitted.
Kalamata Mayor Thanassis Vassilopoulos told ANA-MPA that “the city has done whatever it can, in tandem with the regional unit of Messinia, the Red Cross, volunteers and others, to house the survivors, including providing clothes, mattresses and blankets, while water, portable toilets, showers, and tents have also been set up.”
He added, “Local residents have become aware [of the situation] and responded to a great degree, providing the necessary supplies to migrants; (…) the evening meal was provided by the local sports club.”
Greek public TV ERT reported that three people suspected of being the traffickers had been taken to the central port authority in Kalamata and were being interrogated.
Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou visited some of those rescued and expressed her sorrow for those who had drowned.
Greece´s caretaker prime minister, Ioannis Sarmas, declared three days of national mourning. Political parties announced they will halt their election campaigns