At least 78 dead and dozens missing after a fishing boat sank off Greece


In one of the worst disasters of its kind this year, a fishing boat carrying migrants capsized and sank off the coast of Greece, according to authorities on Wednesday. At least 78 people were killed and many dozens feared missing.

Coast Guards, Navy, and merchant ships deployed in a full-scale search and rescue operation that included an airplane and helicopter.

According to authorities, 104 people have been rescued so far after the boat sank overnight in international waters about 45 miles southwest of Greece’s southern Peloponnese peninsula. The place is near one of the deepest areas of the Mediterranean Sea.

People carry away a survivor after a boat carrying dozens of migrants sank in international waters in the Ionian Sea at the port of Kalamata city June 14, 2023.

EUROKINISSI/Eurokinissi/AFP via Getty Images

It was unclear how many passengers might still be in the water or trapped in the sunken ship, but some initial reports suggested there might have been hundreds of people on board.

Four survivors were hospitalized with symptoms of hypothermia. In the southern port of Kalamata, dozens more were taken to shelters set up by the Ambulance Service and the United Nations Refugee Agency, where they were given dry clothing and medical supplies.

According to the Greek Coast Guard, 78 bodies have been recovered so far.

The boat bound for Italy is believed to have set off from the Tobruk area in eastern Libya. That country fell into chaos after a NATO-backed insurgency that toppled and killed longtime autocrat Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Traffickers benefited from the resulting instability, making Libya one of the main exit points for people attempting to cross to Europe on smuggling boats.

The Italian Coast Guard first alerted the Greek authorities and the European Union’s border protection agency, Frontex, to the approaching ship on Tuesday.

The United Nations Migration Agency (IOM) said initial reports indicated that up to 400 people were on board. A network of activists said they had received a distress call from a boat in the same area whose passengers said 750 people were on board – but it was not clear if this was the ship that sank.

After that initial warning, Frontex aircraft and two merchant ships spotted the boat heading north at high speed, according to the Greek Coast Guard. More planes and ships were sent to the area.

But repeated calls for help to the ship have been denied, the Coast Guard said in a statement.

“In the afternoon, a merchant ship approached the ship and supplied it with food and supplies, while the (passengers) refused any further assistance,” it said. A second merchant ship that approached it later offered more supplies and assistance, but these were declined, the source said.

In the evening, a Coast Guard patrol boat reached the ship “and confirmed the presence of a large number of migrants on deck,” the statement said. “But they refused any help and said they wanted to continue to Italy.”

The Coast Guard boat escorted the refugee ship, which the statement said capsized and sank early Wednesday, sparking a massive rescue operation by all vessels in the area.

Meanwhile, Alarm Phone, a network of activists that provides a hotline for migrants in trouble, said it was contacted by people on a distressed boat on Tuesday afternoon. This boat was in the same area as the one that sank, but it was not clear if they were the same ship.

The organization notified the Greek authorities and Frontex. In a communication with Alarm Phone, migrants reported that the ship was overcrowded and that the captain left the ship on a small boat, the group said. They asked for food and water, which was provided by a merchant ship.

If they have larger boats, Mediterranean smugglers are increasingly trying to stay in international waters when passing Greece to evade coastguard patrols.

On Sunday, 90 migrants were rescued on a US-flagged yacht in the area after making an emergency call.

Six Greek Coast Guard ships, a Navy frigate, a military transport aircraft, an Air Force helicopter, several private ships and a Frontex drone are currently involved in the search for the boat that sank on Wednesday.

Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou traveled to the area where rescued migrants are being cared for and planned campaign events by political parties ahead of national elections on June 25 were cancelled.

Separately, a yacht with 81 migrants on board was towed into a port on the southern coast of the Greek island of Crete on Wednesday after authorities received an emergency call.

According to the IOM, around 27,000 missing migrants have been reported in the Mediterranean since 2014. The organization calls the central Mediterranean “the deadliest known migration route in the world.”

The worst migrant tragedy in Greece happened in June 2016, when at least 320 people were presumed dead or missing, according to AFP records dating back to 1993.

Along with Italy and Spain, Greece was one of the main landing points for tens of thousands of people heading to Europe from Africa and the Middle East.

Greece is also facing an increase in crossing attempts from Turkey on southern routes near the Cyclades islands and towards the Peloponnese peninsula in hopes of avoiding patrols in the northern Aegean.

Rescue operations are a daily occurrence, but last month the Greek government came under international pressure over video footage reportedly showing the violent eviction of migrants at sea.

Greece and other EU member states on the southern and south-eastern fringes of the bloc say they are being wrongly given the task of managing the arrival of undocumented migrants.

AFP contributed to this report.

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