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At least 78 drown as refugee boat sinks off Greece

At least 78 people have died and scores more are feared missing in the deadliest migrant shipwreck off Greece this year.

The victims, nearly all of them men from Afghanistan and Pakistan, drowned when the boat they were travelling in capsized off the southern Peloponnese. The vessel, thought to have been carrying several hundred people, had set out from eastern Libya for Italy. It was unclear whether it was a fishing trawler or cargo ship.

“There has been a dramatic rise in the death count, which is climbing by the hour,” said one official. “Speculation is rife that as many as 600 people were onboard but that has not been confirmed. The ship is under the water. It has sunk.”

About 104 passengers had been rescued as of Wednesday afternoon, he said.

Greece’s public broadcaster, ERT, reported unprecedented scenes in Kalamata, the Peloponnesian town where the dead and injured were being taken.

Coastguard vessels, a navy frigate, military transport planes, an air force helicopter and an array of private craft were participating in the search for survivors. Rescue efforts were initially hampered by strong winds.
Greek authorities and officials from the EU border agency Frontex were alerted to the stricken ship late on Tuesday. A helicopter piloted by Frontex agents, who have intensified patrols in the frontline country, had first spotted the boat in international waters about 50 miles south-west of the town of Pylos in southern Greece.

Smugglers are taking ever-greater risks to evade patrols. They are increasingly operating in international seaways with the aim of dropping off their human cargo in Italy rather than heavily guarded Greece.

“We are seeing growing numbers plying open seas that are more dangerous because they are prone to more stormy weather,” said Natassa Strachimi, a lawyer with Refugee Support Aegean, an NGO that provides legal aid to asylum seekers. “And the journeys are taking much longer because the destination is Italy.”

In a separate incident on Wednesday, a rescue operation was under way off the coast of Crete after a yacht carrying more than 80 migrants was towed to a port in the southern part of the island.

Greece has been criticised for forcibly expelling would-be asylum seekers in violation of international law. Its former centre-right government, which is facing re-election in polls later this month, has denied the “push-backs”, calling its migration policy “tough but fair”.

A video released last month showed refugees who had reached the island of Lesbos being forcibly placed on a Greek coastguard vessel before being set adrift and picked up by the Turkish coastguard.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the country’s prime minister until May, and main opposition leftist leader Alexis Tsipras, announced they would be suspending their electoral campaigns as the scale of the tragedy became apparent.

The European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said she was “deeply saddened” by the tragedy. Last week EU interior ministers agreed radical reforms on migration laws and a new pact with Tunisia to reduce migration, with specific funds aimed at stemming the loss of life in the Mediterranean.

UN data suggests that about 72,000 refugees and migrants have arrived in Italy, Spain, Greece, Malta and Cyprus, countries bordering the Mediterranean, so far this year. Greece has long been one of the main routes for people fleeing war, persecution and poverty in the Middle East Asia and Africa.




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