- By George Wright and Laura Gozzi
- BBC News
At least 78 people have died and more than 100 have been rescued after their fishing boat capsized off southern Greece.
But survivors have suggested up to 750 people may have been put on the boat, with reports of 100 children in the hold.
Greece says it is one of the biggest migrant tragedies in history and has declared three days of mourning.
Authorities say their offers of help have been refused, but they face allegations that they are not doing enough to help.
The boat sank about 80 km southwest of Pylos after 2:04 a.m. Wednesday morning local time, according to the Greek coast guard, which lowered the death toll from 79 to 78.
The European border agency, Frontex, said it spotted the boat on Tuesday afternoon and immediately informed Greek and Italian authorities. The Coast Guard later said no one on board was wearing a life jacket.
In a timeline provided by the coastguard, it is stated that first contact was made with the fishing boat at 2:00 p.m. (11:00 GMT) and that no request for assistance was made.
The Greek Maritime Ministry had made repeated contact with the boat and was repeatedly told that it simply wanted to sail to Italy. A Maltese-flagged ship delivered food and water around 6 p.m., and another boat delivered water three hours later, he added.
On Wednesday, around 1:40 a.m., someone on board the boat reportedly informed the Greek coast guard of a malfunction in the ship’s engine.
Shortly after, the boat capsized, taking only ten to fifteen minutes to completely sink. A search and rescue operation was launched but complicated by strong winds.
Alarm Phone, an emergency hotline for migrants in difficulty at sea, complained that the coast guard was “aware of the vessel being in distress for hours before any help”, adding that the authorities “had been informed by different sources” that the boat was in distress. in trouble.
He adds that people may have been afraid to meet Greek authorities because they were aware of the country’s “horrific and systematic pushback practices.”
Jérôme Tubiana of Médecins Sans Frontières told French radio: “It’s really shocking to learn that Frontex flew over the boat and that no one intervened because the boat refused all offers of help… An overloaded boat is a boat in distress.”
The boat is believed to have been heading from Libya to Italy, and most of those on board are believed to be men in their 20s.
They had been traveling for several days, according to local media, which added that the boat was approached on Tuesday afternoon by a Maltese cargo ship supplying it with food and water.
Survivors speak of 500 to 750 people on board and regional health director Yiannis Karvelis warned of an unprecedented tragedy: “The number of people on board was well above the capacity that should be allowed for this boat”.
One survivor told a doctor at Kalamata hospital that he saw 100 children in the hold.
Coast Guard Captain Nikolaos Alexiou told state television that the boat sank in one of the deepest parts of the Mediterranean.
The nationalities of the victims have not yet been announced.
Survivors were transported to Kalamata and many were hospitalized for hypothermia or minor injuries.
Public broadcaster ERT said three people suspected of being traffickers had been taken to Kalamata’s central port authority and were being questioned.
Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou visited some of those rescued and expressed sadness for those who drowned.
Every year, hundreds of people die trying to cross the Mediterranean. In February, a boat carrying migrants capsized near Cutro, in the Calabria region of southern Italy, killing at least 94 people, one of the deadliest incidents on record.
Yiorgos Michaelidis, head of the Greek Migration Ministry, said Greece had repeatedly called for a “robust” European migration policy “to accept people who are truly in need and not just those who have money to pay the smugglers.
“At the moment it is the smugglers who decide who comes to Europe,” he told the BBC.
“It is about the EU providing asylum, aid and security to those who really need it. This is not a problem of Greece, Italy or Cyprus… C “It is the EU that must conclude on a solid migration policy.”
Greece is one of the main routes into the European Union for refugees and migrants from the Middle East, Asia and Africa.
Last month, the Greek government faced international criticism over video footage showing the forced expulsion of migrants adrift at sea.
More than 70,000 refugees and migrants have arrived in Europe’s frontline countries this year, with the majority landing in Italy, according to UN data.
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