500 migrants feared dead off Greek coast

Coast guard defends response to shipwreck, says search and rescue to continue

Survivors of latest tragical shipwreck prepare to board a bus to transfer to Athens at the port of Kalamata, Greece, Friday, June 16, 2023. The round-the-clock effort continued off the coast of southern Greece despite little hope of finding survivors or bodies after none have been found since Wednesday, when 78 bodies were recovered and 104 people were rescued. (John Liakos/InTime News via AP)
Survivors of latest tragical shipwreck prepare to board a bus to transfer to Athens at the port of Kalamata, Greece, Friday, June 16, 2023. The round-the-clock effort continued off the coast of southern Greece despite little hope of finding survivors or bodies after none have been found since Wednesday, when 78 bodies were recovered and 104 people were rescued. (John Liakos/InTime News via AP)

ATHENS, Greece -- The Greek coast guard Friday defended its response to a ship that went down off the country's south coast and left more than 500 migrants presumed drowned, as criticism mounted over the yearslong failure to pass comprehensive policy on migration into Europe.

Patrol boats and a helicopter spent a third day scouring the area of the Mediterranean Sea where the packed fishing vessel capsized early Wednesday in what the U.N. migration agency, International Organization for Migration, said could be the second deadliest shipwreck recorded.

Greek coast guard spokesman Nikos Alexiou said coast guard and private ships repeatedly offered by radio and loudspeaker to help the vessel Wednesday while it was in international waters, also heading from Libya to Italy, but they were rejected.

Alexiou argued that any effort to tow the overcrowded trawler or force hundreds of unwilling people onto nearby ships would have been highly hazardous.

Alexiou also said after accepting food from a merchant ship, the trawler's passengers rejected a rope bringing more from a second merchant ship "because they thought the whole process was a way for us to take them to Greece."

Experts said maritime law obligated Greek authorities to attempt a rescue regardless.

Flavio Di Giacomo of the Mediterranean office of IOM tweeted that all migrant boats should be considered dangerous and rescued immediately, because "even when they appear to have no problems, in a few minutes they can sink."

Rescuers pulled 104 survivors from the water and later recovered 78 bodies but have not located any more since late Wednesday. The Greek coast guard said the search-and-rescue operation would continue beyond the standard 72 hours.

The U.N.'s migration and refugee agencies issued a joint statement calling timely maritime search and rescues "a legal and humanitarian imperative" and for "urgent and decisive action to prevent further deaths at sea."

"I think it's time for Europe to be able, in solidarity, to define an effective migration policy for these kinds of situations not to happen again," U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said during a news conference at U.N. headquarters in New York late Thursday.


The European Union says the 27-nation bloc is close to an agreement on how member countries can share responsibility in caring for migrants and refugees who undertake the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean.

A judicial investigation is also underway into the causes of the sinking. Greek officials say the vessel capsized minutes after it lost power.

Most of the survivors were being moved Friday from a storage hangar at the southern port of Kalamata to migrant shelters near Athens.

Nine men from Egypt, ranging in age from 20 to 40, were charged Friday of people smuggling and participating in a criminal enterprise. Twenty-seven of the survivors remain hospitalized, health officials said. The smuggling suspects are due to appear in court Monday.

The IOM has estimated the boat carried as many as 750 people. The survivors were all boys and men from Egypt, Pakistan, Syria and the Palestinian territories. Alexiou, citing survivor accounts, said passengers in the hold of the fishing boat included women and children, but the number of missing, believed to be in the hundreds, still remained unclear.

Officials at a state-run morgue outside Athens photographed the faces of the victims and gathered DNA samples to start the identification process.

The Netherlands-based International Commission on Missing Persons offered Friday to send teams to Athens to help with the process, warning that this would require an international effort, as people from many countries were on the trawler.

And Egypt's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said its embassy in Athens is "following up" with the Greek authorities in their search for the missing migrants.

Information for this article was contributed by Frances D'Emilio, Renata Brito, Sarah El Deeb and Costas Kantouris of The Associated Press.

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