Kythira, Greece (AFP) – Bodies floated amid fragmented wreckage in the falling waters off a Greek island on Thursday as the death toll from the sinking of two separate migrant boats rose to 22, with about 12 still missing.
Ships exploded hundreds of miles away, in one case leading to a major rescue effort during the night as islanders and firefighters dragged wrecked migrants to the steep cliffs.
The shipwrecks have raised tension between Greece and Turkey, which are locked in a heated dispute over maritime borders and immigration. It is believed that both ships left from Turkey.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis expressed his “deep sadness at the tragic loss of life” and praised the “heroic” efforts of the rescuers.
“This is the time to cooperate a lot more in order to avoid these kinds of accidents that happen in the future and completely eliminate the smugglers who prey on innocent people” trying to reach Europe in unseaworthy boats, Mitsotakis added.
The coast guard on the eastern Greek island of Lesbos said that the bodies of 16 African women, a man and a boy were found after a boat carrying about 40 people sank. Coast Guard officials said 25 people were rescued late Thursday.
“The rescued women were in complete panic, so we are still trying to find out what happened,” coast guard spokesman Nikos Kokkalas told Greek television. “All the women were from African countries, aged 20 and over.”
The second rescue effort began several hundred kilometers to the southwest, off the island of Kythira, where a sailboat bound for Italy hit stones at night and sank.
The bodies of at least four migrants were seen among the wreckage floating from the yacht beneath the cliffs. Officials said the deaths would be officially recorded when the bodies were recovered. They added that 80 people have been rescued from Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran, while the search continues for 11 people who are still believed to be missing.
“The waves were very high, about 6 meters (20 feet),” said Abdul Ghaffar Amor, an Afghan wreck survivor. “We tried to save our lives, but most of our friends died.”
He said the people on the yacht had been at sea for two days when the ship sank.
With high winds blowing through the night over Kythira, survivors clinging to ropes were dragged up steep cliffs as others were battered by waves as they waited their turn on small patches of rock at the bottom.
“All residents here have come down to the harbor to try and help,” island resident Martha Stathaki told The Associated Press.
“We could see the boat crashing into the rocks and people climbing on those rocks trying to save themselves. It was an incredible sight,” she said.
Omar, the Afghan survivor, said he paid smugglers $9,000 to take them from Turkey to Italy, an amount that matches the accounts of other survivors. The fate of the yacht’s captain is not known, although some survivors say he went missing during the wreck.
Kythira is located 400 kilometers (250 miles) west of Turkey and on a route often used by smugglers to bypass Greece and head straight to Italy.
A turbulent dispute between Greece and Turkey revolves around the safety of migrants at sea, with Athens accusing its neighbor of failing to stop smugglers operating on its coast and even using migrants to put political pressure on the European Union.
Most migrants arriving in Greece travel from nearby Turkey, but smugglers have changed their routes – often at greater risk – in recent months in an effort to avoid the waters heavily patrolled around the eastern Greek islands near the Turkish coast.
“Once again, Turkey’s tolerance of brutal smuggler gangs has taken human lives,” said Greek Maritime Transport Minister Yiannis Plakiotakis.
“As long as the Turkish Coast Guard does not prevent their activities, traffickers crowd unfortunate people, without safety measures, into boats that cannot withstand weather conditions, putting their lives in mortal danger.”
Turkey denies the allegations and has publicly accused Greece of carrying out reckless summary deportations, known as repatriations.
Speaking before the United Nations General Assembly last month, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused Greece of “turning the Aegean Sea into a cemetery” and uploading pictures of dead migrant children. ___ Follow the AP’s coverage of global migration: https://apnews.com/hub/migration
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