908 Rescued From Ship Off France

From Associated Press

An aging freighter that ran aground early Saturday near France’s ritzy Riviera was carrying more than 900 people, most of them Iraqi Kurds, in what French authorities say was a scheme to smuggle immigrants into Western Europe.

Authorities suspected that the vessel was deliberately beached not far from the resort town of Nice before dawn--the work of migrant-smuggling rings.

“The captain has fled, leaving the boat facing land, the propellers turned, so that the boat cannot drift away,” said Georges Ginestat, mayor of St.-Raphael. “It was professional work.”


Authorities took 908 passengers ashore, including three infants born during the weeklong voyage, the Labor Ministry said. Many looked weak and gaunt, and nine were hospitalized. It was unclear how many passengers swam ashore before the vessel washed up.

“It’s a miracle that these people are here,” said Dr. Jean-Jacques Raymond. “They are in a state of very great fatigue.”

During the voyage, the passengers were forced to remain standing in the dark, crowded hold of the 90-foot vessel, the East Sea. Officials originally said that as many as 1,500 people were on board and that about 300 were children.

The Cambodian-registered ship landed in a sandbank about 20 yards from Boulouris beach between Nice and the town of St.-Raphael, regional police spokesman Marc Petit said. Seas had been calm overnight.

Television footage showed passengers huddled at a railing as they waited to descend a rickety staircase onto the rocky coast. They were taken to a nearby military camp in Frejus for medical care and questioning.

Southern France, particularly the posh Riviera, is not usually a stop-off point for smugglers.


However, immigrants fleeing impoverished or troubled countries increasingly are paying for illegal passage aboard ships bound for Western Europe.

Every year, dozens of migrants drown off the coasts of Italy and Spain trying to cross from the Balkans or northern Africa.

The migrants on the East Sea paid $500 to $2,000 for the journey to France, authorities said. The ship left Greece, then made a stopover in Turkey, they said.

Police and maritime officials were searching for the captain and crew, who were believed to be Greek, as well as the ship’s Syrian owner. All are believed to have fled when the vessel ran aground.