Greece: Migrants saved in dramatic rescue as boats sink off Lesbos and Kythira leaving at least 16 dead

Shipwrecked migrants have been pulled to safety up steep wave-buffeted cliffs in dramatic scenes after two boats sank in stormy waters off Greek islands, leaving dozens feared dead.

In one of the incidents, the coast guard said 16 bodies - all of young African women - had been recovered overnight near the eastern island of Lesbos after a dinghy carrying about 40 people sank.

Nine women were rescued, while 15 other migrants were believed to be missing, officials said.

“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 on Thursday.

Avideo grab shows the rescue of migrants from a shipwreck off the island of Kythira (HELLENIC COAST GUARD/AFP via Get)
Avideo grab shows the rescue of migrants from a shipwreck off the island of Kythira (HELLENIC COAST GUARD/AFP via Get)

“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.”

A Greek coastguard vessel and an air force helicopter rushed to conduct a search and rescue, but strong winds hampered the effort.

Meanwhile a second rescue effort was launched several hundred miles to the west, near the island of Kythira, where a boat struck rocks and sank late on Wednesday night.

Mr Kokkalas said 80 people had been rescued while a search was continuing for as many as 15 still believed to be missing.

In dramatic scenes, fire service rescuers and local volunteers on Kythira lowered ropes to help migrants climb up cliffs on the seafront as winds reached 45mph.

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.

 (AP)
(AP)

Local resident Marth Stathaki told the Associated Press: “All the residents here went down to the harbour to try and help.

“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.”

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

The deaths occurred amid a heated spat between Greece and Turkey over the safety of migrants at sea, with Athens accusing its neighbour of failing to stop smugglers active on its shoreline and even using migrants to apply political pressure on the European Union.

Greek migration minister Notis Mitarachi wrote in a tweet today: “Urgent call to Turkey to take immediate action to prevent all irregular departures due to harsh weather conditions. Already today many lives lost in the Aegean, people are drowning in unseaworthy vessels. EU must act.”

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

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.

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