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Greece’s coast guard have been searching for dozens of migrants reported missing after the overloaded sailboat they were on capsized and sank in rough seas off an island near Athens, authorities say.
Ten survivors, all men, were rescued and transported to the island of Evia, off the eastern coast of the Greek capital. The first nine were discovered overnight on an uninhabited islet south of Evia, and told authorities there had been around 68 people on the sailboat when it sank.
The tenth survivor was plucked from the water hours later, on Tuesday afternoon, by a cargo ship participating in the search and rescue operation, the coast guard said.
The initial survivors told Greek authorities the boat had set sail from Izmir on the Turkish coast. There was no information on their nationalities.
The rescue operation took place in particularly rough weather, with gale force winds on Tuesday morning. The Kafireas Strait where the boat sank, between the islands of Evia and Andros, is notoriously treacherous, with rough seas common even in lighter winds.
Images of the 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 nighttime search and rescue. A coast guard photo showed the survivors wrapped in emergency foil blankets sitting on the deck of the patrol boat.
The coast guard said authorities were initially alerted in a distress call early Tuesday about a boat in trouble, but the callers did not provide a location. An aircraft, a coast guard patrol boat and two nearby ships were involved in the search and rescue.
A separate maritime rescue operation continued Tuesday afternoon for seven people missing from an inflatable dinghy that capsized Monday with 12 people reportedly on board. Four survivors were rescued Monday from that incident off the coast of the eastern Aegean island of Samos, which lies near the Turkish coast.
The coast guard said a cargo ship participating in the operation located a body within Greek territorial waters Tuesday. A Turkish coast guard vessel which had not been part of the rescue picked up the body, the coast guard said.
During the recovery, the Turkish vessel allegedly harassed a Greek coast guard vessel and tried to damage it, while also “displaying weaponry,” Greece’s coast guard said.
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 Sea.
Greek Shipping Minister Giannis Plakiotakis slammed Turkey for “allow(ing) ruthless smuggling rings to send people to their deaths, with Greece saving as many as it can.”
He alleged the Turkish coast guard vessel had acted provocatively by entering Greek territorial waters, “perhaps wishing to cause an incident.”
Greece, Plakiotakis said in a statement, “will continue to save lives, without being dragged into the games Turkey seeks in the Aegean.”
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Turkey strongly rejected the accusations, insisting that the body was recovered in international waters, and that it was a Greek boat that approached the Turkish vessel dangerously close. A statement from the Turkish Coast Guard said it was personnel on board the Greek vessel that pointed a weapon at the Turks, prompting a strong response from the Turkish vessel.
“The attitude adopted by the Greek Coast Guard personnel during the search and rescue operation whose sole purpose is to save human life, carried out in international waters in the Turkish Search and Rescue Region, is against international law as well as against human rights,” the statement read.
Thousands of people fleeing conflict and poverty in Africa, Asia and the Middle East attempt to enter the European Union through Greece each year.
Most make the short but often perilous crossing from the Turkish coast to nearby Greek islands in inflatable dinghies. Others opt to attempt to circumvent Greece in overcrowded sailboats and yachts heading straight to Italy.
At least 27 people drowned in two separate incidents last month. In one, 18 people died when a boat that had set sail from Turkey sank off the eastern Aegean island of Lesbos. In the other, a yacht carrying about 100 people sank in a gale, killing at least nine and leaving six missing.
Off the coast of Italy, more than 900 migrants rescued by charity boats in the last few days waited Tuesday for Italian authorities to assign ports where the crowded vessels could disembark passengers.
So far, Italy’s new far-right-led government is keeping to the policies of earlier governments of not immediately granting authorisation for the migrants to come ashore.
The new interior minister has said he plans to crack down on boats suspected of aiding illegal immigration.
Separately, some 280 migrants stepped ashore Tuesday on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa. Hundreds of others were transferred from the island’s chronically overcrowded housing for asylum-seekers to larger facilities in Sicily or the Italian mainland.