At least 17 migrants dead after two boats sink off Greece

Migrant rescue - Ippolytos Prekas/kythera.news/AP
Migrant rescue - Ippolytos Prekas/kythera.news/AP

At least 17 people died and nearly 30 are still missing after high winds sank two migrant vessels in Greece, the coastguard said on Thursday, with some survivors dramatically hoisted to safety by crane.

A dinghy believed to be carrying around 40 people sank off the island of Lesbos in high winds, said Nikos Kokkalas, a spokesman for the coastguard, adding that the people are of apparent African origin.

The bodies of 16 women and a young boy have been recovered from the area so far.

A few hours earlier, the coastguard was alerted to a sailboat in distress near the island of Kythira, south of the Peloponnese peninsula. The sailboat believed to be carrying around 95 people ran aground and sank near the island port of Diakofti.

Some of the survivors made it to shore, and a rescue operation managed to locate 80 asylum seekers from Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan.

Dramatic footage released by the coastguard showed some of the survivors hoisted up a vertical cliff face by rope, some barely managing to hold on. There was is no official death toll yet from the sinking.

Stratos Harhalakis, the mayor of Kythira, said: "This was the worst possible place on the island to crash... Nobody could approach (them) by sea, it was incredibly difficult."

The coastguard said 10 other women had been rescued in the Lesbos incident, while over a dozen people were believed to be missing. Meanwhile, the survivors in Kythira include seven women and 18 children.

Greece - HELLENIC COAST GUARD/AFP/Getty Images
Greece - HELLENIC COAST GUARD/AFP/Getty Images

Both rescue operations were facing adverse weather conditions on Thursday. In the Kythira region, winds were as high as 63 miles per hour, the coastguard said.

Greece has seen increased migration traffic this year, and accuses Turkey of failing to enforce a 2016 agreement with the EU to keep migrants from sailing on to Europe.

Notis Mitarachi, Greece's migration minister, said on Thursday that Turkey should "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," he said.

Greece, Italy and Spain are among the countries used by people fleeing Africa and the Middle East in search of safety.

The Greek coastguard said it has rescued about 1,500 people in the first eight months of the year, up from fewer than 600 last year.

Officials note that smugglers now often take the longer and more perilous route south of the country, sailing out from Lebanon instead of Turkey to bypass patrols in the Aegean Sea.

Migrants - AP/Panagiotis Balaskas
Migrants - AP/Panagiotis Balaskas

In December, at least 30 people perished in three separate migrant boat sinkings in the Aegean. The precise death toll is almost impossible to calculate as some bodies are never recovered, or reach shore weeks later.

Greece has rejected persistent claims from rights groups that many more have been illegally pushed back to Turkey without being allowed to lodge asylum claims.

Over the weekend, another group of over 50 migrants whose sailing boat ran into difficulty in the Ionian Sea refused Greek assistance for an entire day until deteriorating weather forced them to back down.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president, last month said Greek "oppressive policies" against migrants were turning the Aegean into a "graveyard".

Mr Mitarachi this week countered that Turkey is "violently pushing forward migrants to Greece, in violation of international law" and the EU agreement.

He also said last month that southern European nations - Greece, Spain, Italy, Malta and Cyprus - expect around 160,000 asylum seekers to arrive on their shores this year.