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ATHENS, Greece -- The bodies of 16 people, including at least five children, were pulled from the sea off a Greek island on Saturday after a boat smuggling migrants sank in the eastern Aegean, a spokesman for the Greek coast guard said.

The drownings -- the first such mass casualties at sea involving migrants in several months -- came almost exactly two years after Turkey and the European Union signed a deal to curb the flow of migrants trying to reach Europe via the Aegean Sea.

Although the influx has been limited drastically since that time, when daily crossings were often in the thousands, hundreds continue to reach Greek islands in smuggling vessels that are often old, flimsy and unseaworthy.

Greek authorities were alerted to the latest episode shortly after 8 a.m., when three survivors -- two women and a man -- swam to the island of Agathonissi and said a boat carrying 21 people had sunk, the coast guard spokesman said.

"We don't know where they came from," she said, adding that no further details were immediately available about the victims' nationalities.

A large search-and-rescue operation was underway, involving five coast guard vessels, a boat belonging to the EU's border monitoring agency Frontex, a Greek air force helicopter, a Greek navy ship and four fishing boats, the spokesman said.

"Divers are to go out and join the search," she added.

The reasons for the sinking were unclear: Winds on Saturday were a moderate 5 on the open-ended Beaufort scale.

"We cannot and should not tolerate losing people, losing children in the waters of the Aegean," Greece's migration minister, Dimitris Vitsas, said in a statement. "Clearly the solution is in finding measures to protect these people, in safe procedures and passages for refugees and migrants and in the relentless crackdown on human-trafficking rackets."

The U.N. Refugee Agency released a statement saying it is "deeply saddened" at the sinking.

"Some 4,000 people, mainly women and children from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, have arrived by sea to Greece so far this year. Today's tragic incident is the first shipwreck in the Aegean of 2018, but some 500 refugees and migrants lost their lives or went missing in the Greek Aegean Sea over the past two years," it said.

The U.N. refugee agency said "renewed efforts are needed to combat smuggling and trafficking and to strengthen safe alternatives to the perilous sea journeys."

Newly arrived migrants join thousands of others in crowded state-run camps where frustrations are growing. On Wednesday, migrants rioted at a center on the island of Lesbos, which was at the forefront of the migration crisis in late 2015 and early 2016.

At the same camp, two young Syrians and an Iraqi climbed an electricity pylon, threatening to kill themselves unless they were allowed to leave. One was hospitalized with burns after suffering an electric shock.

In a joint statement issued this month, nine rights groups -- including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Oxfam -- denounced the island camps as "open prisons" with "deplorable" conditions and called on authorities to "immediately" transfer migrants to the Greek mainland.

Thousands have been moved to facilities on the Greek mainland in recent months, but authorities have avoided transferring them all amid fears that such a move would send a message to human traffickers that the road to Europe is effectively open.

Also Saturday, demonstrators marched through central Athens protesting the EU-Turkey migrant deal, whose second anniversary falls today. About 2,000 protesters ended the march outside EU offices, decrying Europe's closed borders, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Turkey's military incursion into Syria.

The enforcement of the migration deal is expected to be discussed at a meeting of EU and Turkish leaders in Varna, Bulgaria, on March 26.

Information for this article was contributed by Niki Kitsantonis of The New York Times; and by Elena Becatoros and Demetris Nellas of The Associated Press.

A Section on 03/18/2018

Print Headline: Boat sinks in Aegean; 16 migrants die

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