Greece: 21 dead, dozens missing, after 2 migrant ships sink

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Bodies floated amid splintered wreckage in the water off a Greek island Thursday as the death toll from the sinking of two migrant boats rose to 21, with many still missing.

The boats went down hundreds of miles apart, in one case prompting a dramatic overnight rescue effort, as residents and firefighters pulled shipwrecked migrants to safety up steep cliffs.

The deadly incidents stoked tension between neighbors Greece and Turkey, which are locked in a heated dispute over migration and maritime boundaries.

The coast guard on the eastern island of Lesbos said 16 bodies of young African women and one young man were recovered there after a dinghy carrying about 40 people sank. Ten women were rescued, while 13 other migrants were believed to be missing, coast guard officials said.

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“The women who were rescued were in a full state of panic so we are still trying to work out what happened,” coast guard spokesman Nikos Kokkalas told state television. “The women were all from African countries, aged 20 upward. … There is a search on land as well as at sea and we hope that survivors made it to land.”

Polish security forces block migrants stuck on the border with Belarus in Usnarz Gorny, Poland, Sept. 1, 2021. A year after migrants started crossing into the European Union from Belarus to Poland, Polish authorities are planning to announce Thursday that a 5.5-meter-tall steel wall along its border to the north with Belarus is set to be completed. The purpose of the wall is to keep out asylum seekers fleeing conflict and poverty in the Middle East and Africa. 

Polish security forces block migrants stuck on the border with Belarus in Usnarz Gorny, Poland, Sept. 1, 2021. A year after migrants started crossing into the European Union from Belarus to Poland, Polish authorities are planning to announce Thursday that a 5.5-meter-tall steel wall along its border to the north with Belarus is set to be completed. The purpose of the wall is to keep out asylum seekers fleeing conflict and poverty in the Middle East and Africa. 
((AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski, File))

The second rescue effort was launched several hundred kilometers (miles) to the west, off the island of Kythira, where a sailboat struck rocks and sank.

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The bodies of at least four migrants were seen amid floating debris from the sailboat. The deaths would be officially recorded when the bodies were recovered, officials said. They added that 80 people, from Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan, had been rescued while a search continues for as many as 11 still believed to be missing.

A group of people, thought to be migrants, walk ashore in Dungeness, Kent, following a small boat incident in the Channel. Picture date: Thursday August 25, 2022. 

A group of people, thought to be migrants, walk ashore in Dungeness, Kent, following a small boat incident in the Channel. Picture date: Thursday August 25, 2022. 
((Photo by Gareth Fuller/PA Images via Getty Images))

With winds in the area reaching 70 kph (45 mph) overnight on Kythira, survivors clinging to ropes were pulled to safety up steep cliffs as others were buffeted by waves as they waited their turn on tiny areas of rock at the bottom.

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“All the residents here went down to the harbor to try and help,” Martha Stathaki, a local resident told The Associated Press.

Flags of Greece and Europe on a flagpole waving in the wind.  The flag of Europe on a flagpole waving in the blue sky during a summer sunny day at the Greek capital city Athens. The flag of Europe or the European Flag is the symbol of the Council of Europe CoE and The European Union EU.  The national flag of Greece, Flag of the Hellenic Republic or Greek flag with the White and Blue colors symbolise the Greek sky and sea named as Galanolefki meaning The Blue and White. The Greek flag as seen on a flagpole waving in the blue sky during a summer sunny day at the Greek capital city Athens. July 2022 

Flags of Greece and Europe on a flagpole waving in the wind.  The flag of Europe on a flagpole waving in the blue sky during a summer sunny day at the Greek capital city Athens. The flag of Europe or the European Flag is the symbol of the Council of Europe CoE and The European Union EU.  The national flag of Greece, Flag of the Hellenic Republic or Greek flag with the White and Blue colors symbolise the Greek sky and sea named as Galanolefki meaning The Blue and White. The Greek flag as seen on a flagpole waving in the blue sky during a summer sunny day at the Greek capital city Athens. July 2022 

“We could see the boat smashing against the rocks and people climbing up those rocks to try and save themselves. It was an unbelievable sight.”

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Kythira is some 400 kilometers (250 miles) west of Turkey and on a route often used by smugglers to bypass Greece and head directly to Italy.

Two luxury lines have axed itineraries to Turkey next year.

Two luxury lines have axed itineraries to Turkey next year.
(iStock)

A volatile dispute is taking place between Greece and Turkey over the safety of migrants at sea, with Athens accusing its neighbor of failing to stop smugglers active on its shoreline and even using migrants to apply political pressure on the European Union.

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Most migrants reach Greece travel from nearby Turkey, but smugglers have changed routes — often taking greater risks — in recent months in an effort to avoid heavily patrolled waters around Greek islands near the Turkish coastline.

Refugees and migrants approach the Greek island of Lesbos on a dinghy after crossing the Aegean sea from the Turkish coast, on Monday, Dec. 7, 2015. Greece is the main point of entry into the EU for people fleeing war and poverty at home, with the vast majority of the 700,000 people who have entered the country this year reaching Greek islands from the nearby Turkish coast. 

Refugees and migrants approach the Greek island of Lesbos on a dinghy after crossing the Aegean sea from the Turkish coast, on Monday, Dec. 7, 2015. Greece is the main point of entry into the EU for people fleeing war and poverty at home, with the vast majority of the 700,000 people who have entered the country this year reaching Greek islands from the nearby Turkish coast. 
(AP Photo/Santi Palacios)

“Once again, Turkey’s tolerance of gangs of ruthless traffickers has cost human lives,” Greek Shipping Minister Yannis Plakiotakis said.

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“As long as the Turkish coastguard does not prevent their activities, the traffickers cram unfortunate people, without safety measures, into boats that cannot withstand the weather conditions, putting their lives in mortal danger.”

In this photo provided by the Greek National Defence, a French Tonnerre helicopter carrier, rear left is escorted by Greek and French military vessels during a maritime exercise in the Eastern Mediterranean, Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020. Greece's prime minister warmly thanked France for its decision to boost its military presence in the eastern Mediterranean, where Greek and Turkish warships are closely shadowing each other over a Turkish energy exploration bid in waters Athens claims as its own. 

In this photo provided by the Greek National Defence, a French Tonnerre helicopter carrier, rear left is escorted by Greek and French military vessels during a maritime exercise in the Eastern Mediterranean, Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020. Greece’s prime minister warmly thanked France for its decision to boost its military presence in the eastern Mediterranean, where Greek and Turkish warships are closely shadowing each other over a Turkish energy exploration bid in waters Athens claims as its own. 
(Greek National Defence via AP)

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Turkey denies the allegations and has publicly accused Greece of carrying out reckless summary deportations, known as pushbacks.

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Speaking at the United Nations General Assembly last month, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, accused Greece of “turning the Aegean Sea into a graveyard” and held up photographs of dead migrant children.

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