ATHENS: More than 250 migrants were rescued off the Greek island of Crete on Friday (Jun 3) after their boat capsized and operations are continuing to find more survivors, the Greek coastguard said, AFP reports.
It was the second migrant boat found in that area of the southern Aegean Sea since last week, indicating that people smugglers may be forging a possible new route.
At least four ships passing through the area picked up the survivors, who are expected to be taken to Crete, a coastguard spokeswoman said.
She said a major rescue operation was underway in the area, in clear but windy conditions about 75 nautical miles south of the island, but the number of those still missing is not known.
The spokeswoman had earlier said that “the number of people in distress could be counted in the hundreds”. She added that “people are in the water, boats crossing the area have thrown lifebuoys and are moving to save the migrants”.
It was not immediately clear where the boat had left from or where it was headed, or the nationalities of those on board. She said a passing ship spotted the sinking vessel off Crete, Greece’s largest island located in the southern Aegean Sea.
The coastguard rushed two patrol boats, a plane and a helicopter to the scene. About half of the 25-metre-long boat was completely underwater, the spokeswoman said.
Some 204,000 migrants and refugees have crossed the Mediterranean to Europe since January, the United Nations refugee agency said on Tuesday. More than 2,500 people have died trying to make the perilous journey this year.
In the most recent deadly incident in the Aegean, four women and a child drowned in early April off the island of Samos. The vast majority of deaths occurred on crossings between Libya and Italy, as migrant arrivals to Greece have fallen sharply since the EU entered into a controversial deal on March 20 with key transit country Turkey to stem the flow of migrants.
Before the influx of migrants to the Greek islands last year, a number of boats were intercepted or capsized further west in the Aegean in recent years, usually en route to Italy from Turkey or from North Africa.
On May 27, the Greek coastguard intercepted a boat off Crete carrying 65 Syrian, Afghan and Pakistani migrants, and under the control of two suspected people traffickers – a Ukrainian and an Egyptian.
The coastguard did not indicate if that boat, which the migrants said had left from Turkey, was heading for Italy or whether the smugglers had chosen the route through the southern Aegean to reach Greece by avoiding NATO ships deployed further north and east.
The NATO deployment is aimed at cutting off the Aegean Sea route used by hundreds of thousands of migrants to reached Europe since last year, fleeing poverty and conflict in Asia, the Middle East and Africa.