At least 78 migrants dead, dozens feared missing after vessel capsizes off Greece

Survivors of a migrant shipwreck sitting in a warehouse
Survivors of a migrant shipwreck gather Wednesday in a warehouse at the port in Kalamata, Greece, about 150 miles southwest of Athens.
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A fishing boat carrying migrants capsized and sank off the coast of Greece on Wednesday night, authorities said, leaving at least 78 people dead and many dozens missing in one of the worst disasters of its kind this year.

Coast guard, navy and merchant vessels fanned out in a vast search-and-rescue operation that also included a plane and a helicopter.

Authorities said 104 people have been rescued after the nighttime incident some 46 miles southwest of southern Greece’s Peloponnese peninsula. The spot is close to one of the deepest areas of the Mediterranean Sea.


It was unclear how many passengers might still be in the water or trapped in the sunken vessel, but some initial reports suggested that hundreds of people may have been on board.

Four survivors were hospitalized with symptoms of hypothermia. At the port of Kalamata, dozens of others were taken to sheltered areas set up by ambulance services and the United Nations Refugee Agency to receive dry clothes and medical attention.

The Greek coast guard said 78 bodies have been recovered.

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The Italy-bound boat is believed to have sailed from the Tobruk area in eastern Libya. The North African country plunged into chaos after a NATO-backed uprising that toppled and killed longtime autocrat Moammar Kadafi in 2011. Human traffickers have benefited from the ensuing instability and made Libya one of the main departure points for people attempting to reach Europe on smugglers’ boats.

The Italian coast guard first alerted Greek authorities and the European Union border protection agency, Frontex, to the approaching vessel Tuesday.

The United Nations’ International Organization for Migration said initial reports suggested that as many as 400 people were on board. A network of activists said it received a distress call from a boat in the same area whose passengers said 750 people were on board, but it was unclear whether that was the vessel that sank.

After that first alert, Frontex aircraft and two merchant ships spotted the boat heading north at high speed, according to the Greek coast guard. More aircraft and ships were sent to the area.


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But repeated calls to the vessel offering help were declined, the coast guard said in a statement.

“In the afternoon a merchant vessel approached the ship and provided it with food and supplies, while the [passengers] refused any further assistance,” it said. A second merchant ship that approached it later offered further supplies and assistance, which were turned down, it said.

In the evening, a coast guard patrol boat reached the vessel “and confirmed the presence of a large number of migrants on the deck,” the statement said. “But they refused any assistance and said they wanted to continue to Italy.”

The coast guard boat accompanied the migrant vessel, which, the statement said, capsized and sank early Wednesday, prompting a rescue operation by all the ships in the area.

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Alarm Phone, an activist network that provides a hotline for migrants in trouble, said it was contacted by people on a boat in distress Tuesday afternoon. It was not clear if it was the vessel that sank.

The organization notified Greek authorities and Frontex. In one communication with Alarm Phone, migrants reported that the vessel was overcrowded and that the captain had abandoned the ship on a small boat, according to the group. They asked for food and water, which was provided by a merchant ship.


“We fear that hundreds of people have drowned,” Alarm Phone said in a statement.

When they have larger boats, Mediterranean smugglers are increasingly trying to stay in international waters as they pass Greece to try to avoid its coast guard patrols.

On Sunday, 90 migrants on a U.S.-flagged yacht were rescued in the area after they made a distress call.

Six Greek coast guard vessels, a navy frigate, a military transport plane, an air force helicopter, several private vessels and a drone from Frontex are taking part in the search for the boat that sank Wednesday.

Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou was heading to the area where rescued migrants were being tended to, and campaign events ahead of the June 25 national elections were called off.

Separately Wednesday, a yacht with 81 migrants on board was towed to a port on the south coast of Greece’s island of Crete after authorities received a distress call.