- Rescue workers in Greece scoured the Ionian Sea on Thursday for survivors after a fishing boat carrying migrants capsized and sank.
- Officials say while the death toll stands at 78, there remains fear this could increase as “hundreds” more could be missing.
- Greece declared three days of mourning over the tragedy and a senior prosecutor has been assigned to investigate the matter.
Greek rescuers on Thursday scoured the Ionian Sea for survivors a day after a fishing boat overloaded with migrants capsized and sank, killing at least 78 people, with fears that the toll could eventually reach into the hundreds.
As relatives in the migrants’ home countries frantically sought details of their loved ones, the coastguard said 78 bodies had been recovered and 104 people have been plucked out of the water alive so far.
There are fears that hundreds more could be missing, based on testimony from survivors and the fact that no women and children had yet been rescued.
“This could be the worst maritime tragedy in Greece in recent years,” Stella Nanou of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) told state broadcaster ERT.
“It’s really horrific,” UNHCR staffer Erasmia Roumana told AFP at the port of Kalamata, adding that the survivors were “in a very bad psychological situation”.
Many are under shock, they are so overwhelmed. Many of them worry about the people they travelled with, families or friends.
Pictures handed out by the coastguard showed a rusty blue boat with scores of people crammed on deck.
Two patrol boats, a navy frigate, three helicopters and nine other ships searched the waters west of the Peloponnese peninsula, one of the deepest parts of the Mediterranean, a coastguard spokeswoman told AFP.
Greece’s coastguard is in search of migrants after a fishing boat sunk on Tuesday, killing 78. File image
AFP Fathi Al-Masri/ AFP
In a telegram, Pope Francis offered “heartfelt prayers for the many migrants who have died, their loved ones and all those traumatised by this tragedy”.
Greece has declared three days of mourning over the tragedy and a senior prosecutor has been assigned to investigate.
Political parties suspended their campaigns for 25 June national elections.
I need my mother
“One young man started to cry and said, I need my mother… This voice is inside my ears. And will always be inside,” Red Cross nurse Ekaterini Tsata told AFP.
Around 30 people were hospitalised with pneumonia, dehydration and exhaustion but are not in immediate danger, officials said.
A survivor told hospital doctors in Kalamata that he had seen a hundred children in the boat’s hold, ERT said.
Coastguard spokesman Nikolaos Alexiou told ERT:
The fishing boat was 25-30 metres long. Its deck was full of people, and we assume the interior was just as full.
Government spokesman Ilias Siakantaris on Wednesday said there were unconfirmed reports that up to 750 people were on the boat.
“We do not know what was in the hold… but we know that several smugglers lock people up to maintain control,” he told ERT.
No life jackets
The coastguard said a surveillance plane with Europe’s Frontex agency had spotted the boat on Tuesday afternoon, but the passengers had “refused any help”.
The boat’s engine gave up on Tuesday and the vessel later capsized, Siakantaris said, sinking in around 10 to 15 minutes.
The coastguard added that none on board were wearing life jackets.
Alexiou, the coastguard spokesman, suggested that the boat might also have capsized if the coastguard had attempted to stop it by force.
“You cannot divert a boat with so many people on board by force unless there is cooperation,” he said, adding that it was “fortunate” that rescue ships were nearby or more lives would have been lost.
But leftist former prime minister Alexis Tsipras, who spoke to survivors at the port, said they had “called for help.”
“What sort of protocol does not call for the rescue…of an overloaded boat about to sink?” he asked.
Authorities said the migrants had departed from Libya and were heading for Italy.
The survivors are mainly from Syria, Egypt and Pakistan and have been temporarily housed in a port warehouse to be interviewed by Greek authorities, who are looking for possible smugglers among them.
Acting migration minister Daniel Esdras told ERT that the survivors would be taken to Malakasa migrant camp near Athens by Friday.
Greece would examine their asylum claims, but those not entitled to protection would be sent home, he said.
Along with Italy and Spain, Greece has been one of the main landing points for tens of thousands of people seeking to reach Europe from Africa and the Middle East.
The worst migrant tragedy in Greece was in June 2016, when at least 320 people were listed as dead or missing in a sinking near Crete, according to AFP records going back to 1993.
The Mediterranean’s worst disaster overall was in April 2015, when 800 to 900 migrants died on a trawler that sank within sight of a Portuguese rescue freighter.