After the refugee boat tragedy off Greece, the questions are piling up Ship’s crew

Reuters

By Lefteris Papadimas and Caroline Tagaris

KALAMATA, Greece, June 15 (Reuters) – As Greece faces its worst maritime disaster in years, questions are mounting about how hundreds of migrants may have drowned despite their ship being shadowed by the Greek Coast Guard.

At least 78 people died when the fishing vessel overturned and capsized in international waters southwest of Greece early Wednesday. Authorities rescued 104 people but hundreds are feared missing. Some witnesses said up to 750 people were on board.

According to authorities and activists, around 0800 GMT on June 13, the Greek Coast Guard was alerted to the presence of the vessel 47 nautical miles (87 km) southwest of Greece. It capsized at around 23:00 GMT that day.

What exactly happened in the past 15 hours remains unclear. A migrant charity said a person they were in contact with on the boat said the boat was in distress, but Greek authorities said she had repeatedly turned down offers of help.

Below are some details from previous accounts:

LEAVE LIBYA

Two Greek sources familiar with police inquiries say the aging fishing vessel left Tobruk in Libya early on June 10, based on the accounts of about 30 survivors.

The passengers paid $4,500 to cross to Italy, the two Greek sources said. According to some reports, among the passengers were about 20 women and children. According to a Maritime Department official, they booked their trip through social media.

The tugs had promised adequate space on the ship, but when passengers arrived at the scheduled departure point and saw it was overcrowded, it was impossible to turn back, these sources said.

Over the next few days at sea, the boat experienced “two or three” mechanical faults, which were fixed by a crew of 8 to 10 people. Progress was slow.

“If people reacted, the traffickers would scream and threaten to stop giving them water,” one of the sources said, citing reports from survivors.

Passengers also insisted on going to Italy, which borders visa-free EU member states that allow safe transit, rather than Greece, which is surrounded by Balkan states that are taking an increasingly tough line on immigration, they said.

MIXED NEWS

Advocacy group Alarm Phone, which runs a trans-European network in support of rescue operations, said it received its first call from the boat shortly after 12:00 GMT on June 13, saying the ship was in distress. The person they communicated with said, “You can’t survive the night.”

The Greek authorities had also contacted the ship.

But in repeated communications with the boat between 1330 and 1800 GMT, Greek authorities said people on the ship had told them they wanted to sail to Italy and did not want help from Greece.

Aerial photos of the ship, taken by the Greek Coast Guard hours before the tragedy struck, showed a ship crammed with people on its exposed decks. Some had stretched out their hands.

Greek officials said they faced a dilemma over what to do with a ship that had repeatedly turned down offers of help and feared even the slightest movement could throw the boat off balance.

“You can’t do a forcible diversion on a ship like this with so many people on board, without their wanting it, without any cooperation,” said Nikos Alexiou, a spokesman for the Hellenic Coast Guard.

Under EU law, determining whether a ship is in distress is based on a number of factors, including the condition of the ship, the number of people on board, weather conditions and the availability of safety, navigation and communications equipment.

As the boat reported engine trouble and stalled, a Coast Guard vessel shadowing them approached. In just under 25 minutes, Coast Guard witnesses saw the boat tilt sharply from right to left. In 10 to 15 minutes the boat was gone.

The exact number of victims may never be known. The waters in which the boat sank are among the deepest in the Mediterranean and can be as deep as 5 km.

(Reporting by Karolina Tagaris, Michele Kambas and Lefteris Papadimas; Text by Michele Kambas, Editing by Alex Richardson)

(c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2023.

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