- At least 78 people have died and hundreds more are missing in the Ionian Sea after the overloaded fishing boat sank.
- Nine men have been arrested for people smuggling.
- Hundreds of men, women and children were in the boat’s hull and were unable to escape.
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, as police arrested nine suspected people smugglers.
Fears were growing meanwhile that the final toll could eventually run into the hundreds.
“We are witnessing one of the biggest tragedies in the Mediterranean and the numbers announced by the authorities are devastating,” the UN International Organization for Migration said.
As frantic relatives in the migrants’ home countries sought details of loved ones, the coastguard said 78 bodies had been recovered and 104 people saved from the sea so far.
Police on Thursday arrested nine Egyptians on suspicion of people smuggling, one of them the captain of the boat carrying the migrants.
They were arrested at the port of Kalamata, where the survivors are being cared for, said Greek news agency ANA.
A survivor told hospital doctors in Kalamata he had seen a hundred children in the boat’s hold, ERT reported.
“It’s really horrific,” UN refugee agency UNHCR staffer Erasmia Roumana told AFP. The survivors were “in a very bad psychological situation”.
“Many are under shock, they are so overwhelmed,” she said. “Many of them worry about the people they travelled with, families or friends.”
Scores of people covering practically every free stretch of deck on a battered fishing boat that later capsized and sank off southern Greece are feared to be dead. The vessel capsized and sank off Greece on Wednesday leaving at least 79 dead and hundreds more missing in one of the worst disasters of its kind this year. Source: AAP / Hellenic Coast Guard
Photographs handed out by the coastguard showed a rusty blue boat with scores of people crammed on deck.
“It was like an abandoned ship… we saw no lifesavers or lifejackets either on (the migrants) or the boat,” local rescuer Constantinos Vlachonikolos told Proto Programma radio.
“We’ve never seen anything like this before.”
‘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.
Some of those rescued are under 18.
“The fishing boat was 25-30 metres long. Its deck was full of people, and we assume the interior was just as full,” coastguard spokesman Nikolaos Alexiou told ERT.
Government spokesman Ilias Siakantaris on Wednesday said there were unconfirmed reports that up to 750 people had been on the boat.
He said a common tactic used by smugglers was to “lock people up to maintain control”.
In a telegram, Pope Francis offered “heartfelt prayers for the many migrants who have died, their loved ones and all those traumatised.
But Doctors without Border (MSF) said the disaster was entirely preventable.
“What happened is the consequence of the absence of safe and legal pathways to come to Europe,” said Juan Matias Gil, of MSF Sea.
Questions over rescue
The coastguard said a surveillance plane with Europe’s Frontex agency had spotted the boat on Tuesday afternoon, but that the passengers had “refused any help”.
The boat’s engine gave up shortly before 23:00 GMT on Tuesday and the vessel later capsized, Mr Siakantaris said, sinking in around 10 to 15 minutes.
Mr Alexiou, the coastguard spokesman, suggested that the boat might have capsized earlier if the coastguard had attempted to intervene.
“You cannot divert a boat with so many people on board by force unless there is cooperation,” he said.
It was “fortunate” that rescue ships were nearby or more lives would have been lost, he added.
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.
Survivors from the boat sit inside a warehouse at the port town. A total of 104 individuals were rescued, while 79 bodies were recovered, after the fishing boat capsized. Source: AAP / Angelos Tzortzinis
Migrants headed for Italy
Officials say the migrants had departed from Libya and had been headed for Italy.
The survivors, mainly from Syria, Egypt and Pakistan, are being housed in a port warehouse at Kalamata.
Acting migration minister Daniel Esdras said the survivors would eventually 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 added.
Greece, Italy and Spain are among the main landing points for tens of thousands of people seeking to reach Europe from Africa and the Middle East.