Greece searches for hundreds feared missing after migrant boat sank, leaving 78 dead

Kalamata, June 15 (BNA): Rescue ships deployed today, Thursday, in search of hundreds of migrants who feared they would be lost after their overcrowded boat capsized and sank while trying to reach Europe. At least 78 people died.

So far, 104 people on a fishing boat traveling from Libya to Italy have been rescued, but authorities fear many more may be trapped below deck. If confirmed, that would make the tragedy one of the worst ever recorded in the central Mediterranean, the Associated Press reports.

“The chances of finding (more survivors) are slim,” retired Greek coast guard admiral Nikos Spanos told state broadcaster ERT.

The United Nations migration agency, known as the International Organization for Migration, estimated that the ship was carrying between 700 and 750 people, including at least 40 children, based on interviews with survivors. Greek officials said most of those rescued were men, including Egyptians, Syrians, Pakistanis, Afghans and Palestinians.

Authorities revised the confirmed death toll from 79 to 78 after an overnight body count, and rescue workers transferred the dead to refrigerated trucks.

“The survivors are in a very difficult situation. Now they are in shock,” Erasmia Romana, head of the delegation for the UN refugee agency, told the Associated Press after meeting the rescued migrants in a storage hangar in the southern port of Kalamata.

“They want to call their families to tell them they are okay, and keep asking about missing persons. Many of them have friends and relatives who are missing.”

Muhammad Abdi Marwan, who spoke by phone from Kobani, a Kurdish-majority town in northeastern Syria, said five of his relatives were on the boat, including a 14-year-old. Marwan said he had not heard from his relatives since the ship sank. His nephew Ali Sheikhi, 29, is believed to be alive after family members spotted him in photos of survivors, but Marwan said friends are still making their way to the makeshift camp in Greece to confirm.

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“These smugglers were only supposed to have 500 on the boat and now we hear there are 750. What is this? Are they cattle or people? How can they do that?” Marwan said. He said each of his relatives paid $6,000 for the trip.

Greece declared three days of mourning and politicians suspended campaigning on June 25. A public prosecutor in the Supreme Court ordered an investigation into the circumstances of the death.

Greek authorities said the ship appeared to be sailing normally until shortly before it sank, and have rejected repeated offers of rescue, while a network of activists said they received repeated distress calls from the ship during the same time.

The Greek coast guard said it was notified of the boat’s presence late Tuesday morning, and noted by helicopter that it was “navigating a steady course” at 6 p.m.

A little later, the joint Greek search and rescue team reached someone on the boat by satellite phone, who said repeatedly that the passengers needed food and water but wanted to continue sailing to Italy.

Merchants and ships delivered supplies and watched the ship until early Wednesday morning when a satellite phone user reported an engine problem. About 40 minutes after an engine failure was reported, according to a coast guard statement, the migrant ship suddenly began to shake violently and then sank.

Coast Guard experts believe the boat may have sank after running out of fuel or developing engine trouble, as passenger traffic caused it to list and eventually capsize.

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Alarm Phone, a network of activists that provides a hotline for immigrants in trouble, said the trouble started early in the day. The network said people on the ship called for help shortly after 3 p.m., saying, “They can’t survive the night.”

At around 6:20 p.m., the alarm phone wrote, migrants reported that the boat had not moved and the captain had abandoned ship in a small boat, according to the group. The two accounts cannot be settled immediately.

Maritime law would have required Greek authorities to attempt a rescue if the boat was unsafe, experts said, whether passengers requested it or not. Retired Italian Coast Guard Admiral Vittorio Alessandro told the Associated Press that search and rescue “is not a two-way contract, you don’t need approval.”

An aerial photograph of the ship, before it sank and released by Greek authorities, showed people crammed onto the deck. Most of them were not wearing life jackets.

Alessandro said overcrowding, a lack of flak jackets or a lack of a captain were all reasons for the intervention.

Greece’s interim minister in charge of civil protection, Evangelos Tornas, has vigorously defended the behavior of the coast guard and insisted that migrants have repeatedly refused help, insisting they continue to go to Italy.

“The coast guard cannot interfere with a ship that does not accept interference in international waters,” he said.

“Also keep in mind that an intervention by the Coast Guard could have endangered an overloaded vessel, which could capsize as a result of the intervention.”

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Twenty-nine survivors remain in hospital in southern Greece, most with symptoms of hypothermia, while eight have been questioned by coast guard investigators. Government officials said the survivors would be taken to a migrant shelter near Athens later Thursday or Friday.

The bodies of the dead migrants have been taken to a morgue outside Athens, where DNA samples and facial photos will be taken to begin the identification process. Health officials said the embassies of the countries concerned would help.

The accident site is close to the deepest part of the Mediterranean Sea, where depths of up to 17,000 feet (5,200 metres) can hamper any effort to locate a sunken ship.

Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, said she was “deeply saddened” by the tragedy and promised to strengthen cooperation between the EU and neighboring countries to try more crackdowns against migrant smugglers.

But human rights groups say the crackdown has forced migrants and refugees to take longer and more dangerous routes to reach safe countries.

The International Organization for Migration has recorded more than 21,000 deaths and disappearances in the central Mediterranean since 2014.

The Mediterranean’s deadliest shipwreck in living memory occurred on April 18, 2015, when a fishing boat packed with migrants off Libya collided with a cargo ship that was trying to rescue it. Only 28 people survived. Forensic experts concluded that there were originally 1,100 people on board.

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