A major search and rescue operation is underway for dozens of people missing after the boat they were on capsized and sank overnight off the coast of an island near the Greek capital
ByELENA BECATOROS Associated Press
ATHENS, Greece — A major search and rescue operation was underway Tuesday for dozens of migrants reported missing after the overloaded sailing boat they were on capsized and sank in stormy weather overnight off an island near the Greek capital, authorities said.
The incident was the latest in a series of recent shipwrecks involving migrant boats in Greek seas that have left dozens of people dead or missing.
The coast guard said nine survivors, all men, had been found on an uninhabited islet south of the island of Evia and had been picked up by a coast guard vessel in the early hours of Tuesday. None had been wearing lifejackets, the coast guard said. The survivors told authorities they had been on board a sailing boat with a total of around 68 people that had left from Izmir on the Turkish coast, and that the vessel had capsized and sank.
The rescue operation was hampered by particularly rough weather, with gale force winds on Tuesday morning, the coast guard said. The area where the boat sank, the Kafireas Strait between the islands of Evia and Andros, is notoriously treacherous, with even light winds kicking up rough seas. Wind strength eased in the early afternoon, but the ongoing search had not yet located any further passengers from the sailing boat.
Images of the rescue operation released by the coast guard showed a small group of people standing on rocks beneath a cliff waving for help, and waves crashing over the coast guard patrol boat during the night-time search and rescue. A photo released by the coast guard showed the survivors wrapped in emergency foil blankets sitting on the deck of the patrol boat.
The coast guard said authorities were initially alerted by a distress call in the early hours of Tuesday from passengers saying the boat they were on was in trouble, but they did not provide a location. An aircraft, a coast guard patrol boat and two nearby ships were participating in the search and rescue operation.
A separate search and rescue operation was also continuing Tuesday afternoon off the coast of the eastern Aegean island of Samos, which lies near the Turkish coast, for seven people still missing from an inflatable dinghy that capsized on Monday with 12 people reportedly on board. Four survivors were rescued Monday from that incident.
The coast guard said a cargo ship participating in the search and rescue operation located one body in the area on Tuesday, within Greek territorial waters. It said the body was picked up by a Turkish coast guard vessel which had not been participating in the search and rescue operation.
The coast guard said the Turkish vessel harassed a Greek coast guard vessel and tried to damage it, while also “displaying weaponry.” Tension has been high between neighbors and NATO allies Greece and Turkey, which are at odds over a series of issues, including territorial disputes in the Aegean.
A coast guard aircraft and two vessels, and a boat from the European border patrol agency Frontex were participating in Tuesday’s search, authorities said.
Every year, thousands of people try to enter the European Union through Greece as they flee war and poverty in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Most use inflatable dinghies to travel the short but frequently dangerous distance from the Turkish coast to the nearby Greek islands. Others decide to attempt a circumnavigation of Greece in crowded sailboats and yachts bound for Italy.
At least 27 people drowned in two separate incidents earlier this month. In one, a boat that had departed from Turkey capsized off the island of Lesbos, killing 18, while in the other, a yacht carrying about 100 people went down in a gale, killing at least nine people and leaving six others missing.
More than 900 migrants who had been rescued off the coast of Italy by charity boats in a variety of operations over the previous few days waited on crowded boats on Tuesday in the anticipation that Italian authorities would designate ports for disembarkation. As of now, the new far-right-led coalition in Italy is adhering to the earlier administrations’ policy of delaying approving the migrants’ request to come ashore.
Matteo Salvini, the leader of the anti-immigration League, is a member of Italy’s new governing coalition, whose interior minister has declared he will crack down on boats suspected of facilitating illegal immigration.
Separately, on Tuesday, around 280 migrants arrived on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, while hundreds of others were relocated from the island’s notoriously overcrowded housing for asylum seekers to larger facilities in Sicily or the mainland.
Frances D’Emilio in Rome contributed to this report.
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