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Greek coastguard denies claims it could have prevented boat disaster | Greece

Greek coastguard denies claims it could have prevented boat disaster | Greece

Greece’s coastguard has defended itself from mounting claims that it could have prevented the sinking of a fishing boat in the Mediterranean feared to have caused hundreds of deaths, as the UN called for urgent action to prevent further tragedies.

Officials said on Friday a helicopter, a frigate and three smaller vessels were continuing to search 50 miles (80km) from the southern town of Pylos where the boat, reportedly carrying between 400 and 750 people, sank on Wednesday in some of the deepest waters in the Mediterranean.

Greek authorities have confirmed 78 deaths and said 104 survivors – mostly from Syria, Egypt and Pakistan – had been brought ashore, but police believe as many as 500 are missing, with witnesses saying up to 100 children were in the ship’s hold.

Most of the survivors were moved to shelters in Malakasa near Athens on Friday from a warehouse at the southern port of Kalamata. No more people had been found alive since Wednesday, but officials indicated the round-the-clock search would continue.

Greek authorities have been strongly criticised for not acting earlier after it emerged that a coastguard vessel escorted the boat – which set sail from Tobruk in Libya on 10 June – for hours. Officials said people on the boat repeatedly refused assistance and were determined to reach Italy, but legal experts and aid groups said that was no excuse.

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The Greek coastguard has said it was notified of the boat’s presence late on Tuesday morning and observed from a helicopter that it was still “sailing on a steady course” at 6pm. A little later, someone on the boat was reached by satellite phone.

That person said the passengers needed food and water, but wanted to continue to Italy. “It was a fishing boat packed with people, who refused our assistance because they wanted to go to Italy,” coastguard spokesperson Nikos Alexiou said.

Authorities monitored the vessel for about 15 hours before it sank, with merchant ships also observing it and delivering supplies until the early hours of Wednesday morning, when the satellite phone user reported a problem with the engine.

About 40 minutes later, according to a coastguard statement, the boat began to rock violently and sank. Coastguard experts believe it may have run out of fuel or had engine trouble and that passengers moving inside caused it to list and capsize.

“We stayed beside it in case it needed our assistance, which they refused,” Alexiou said, denying media reports that a coastguard vessel had tried to tow the fishing boat and insisting that offers of help over radio and loudspeaker were refused.

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Evangelos Tournas, Greece’s caretaker minister for civil protection, defended the coastguard’s actions, saying it could not intervene in international waters without a request for assistance and suggesting it could have been dangerous to do so. “An intervention by the coastguard could have placed an overloaded vessel in danger, which could capsize as a result,” Tournas said.

However, the operation has created political controversy and sparked protests in Athens that turned violent on Thursday.

Alarm Phone, a refugee support group that had been in communication with the vessel, said people onboard had pleaded for help on at least two occasions and it had alerted Greek authorities and aid agencies hours before the disaster.

“The Greek government had specific responsibilities toward every passenger on the vessel, which was clearly in distress,” said Adriana Tidona of Amnesty International. “This is a tragedy of unimaginable proportions, the more so because it was entirely preventable.”

Timeline
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Conflicting accounts of boat sinking

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Exactly what happened in the hours before the boat sank off the coast of Greece is unclear. A migrant charity says a person they were in contact with on the boat said it was in distress, but Greek authorities say passengers repeatedly refused offers of help. All times GMT.
10 June 2023
Vessel left Tobruk in Libya early in the morning, Greek sources tell Reuters

13 June 2023

0800

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Greek coastguard alerted to the presence of the vessel 47 nautical miles (87 km) south-west of country

13 June 2023

1217

Advocacy group Alarm Phone says it received its first call from the boat to say it was in distress. Greek authorities had also established contact with the vessel

13 June 2023

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1330 – 1800

Greek authorities who were in repeated communication with the boat say people on the vessel told them they wanted to sail to Italy and wanted no assistance from Greece

13 June 2023

1500

Food and water supplied by commercial vessel

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13 June 2023

1520

Alarm Phone says passengers told it the boat was not moving

13 June 2023

1630

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Greek coastguard says observation from helicopter showed boat was sailing ‘on steady course’

13 June 2023

2100

Greek coastguard says it threw rope to crew 

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Prof Erik Røsæg of the University of Oslo’s Institute of Private Law said maritime law would have required Greek authorities to attempt a rescue if the boat was unsafe, irrespective of whether those onboard had requested it or not.

Greek authorities “had a duty to start rescue procedures” given the condition of the trawler, Røsæg told Associated Press, adding that a captain’s refusal of assistance could be overruled if deemed unreasonable – which, he said, this appeared to be.

Aerial pictures released by Greek authorities of the boat hours before it sank showed dozens of people on the boat’s upper and lower decks looking up, some with arms outstretched. Few, if any, appeared to be wearing a lifejacket.

The boat carrying migrants before it sank off the coast of Greece Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Alexis Tsipras, who was prime minister from 2015 to 2019 at the peak of Europe’s migration crisis and is now a leftwing opposition leader, said Europe’s immigration policies had “turned the Mediterranean into watery graves”.

The coastguard should have towed the ship to safety as it approached Greek waters, Tsipras said. Under its recent conservative government, Greece has taken a far harder stance on migration, building walled camps and boosting border controls.

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Athens has also faced multiple allegations in recent years that it deliberately pushes people back to Turkey, illegally preventing them from claiming asylum in Greece, something the government has strenuously denied.

Migration graphic

The UN agencies for refugees and migrants called in a joint statement on Friday for a thorough investigation and “urgent and decisive action to prevent further deaths at sea”.

They insisted states had an obligation to unite to address the dangerous gaps in search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, noting that a “duty to rescue people in distress at sea without delay is a fundamental rule of international maritime law”.

In particular, they rejected efforts to criminalise those who try to help in such situations, reiterating that “search and rescue at sea is a legal and humanitarian imperative” and should always be carried out in a way aimed to prevent loss of life.

Federico Soda, the head of the International Organisation for Migration’s emergency department, said the tragedy once again showed the approach to migrant crossings in the Mediterranean needed to change.

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“It is clear, that the current approach to the Mediterranean is unworkable,” he said in the statement. “Year after year, it continues to be the most dangerous migration route in the world, with the highest fatality rate.”

Migration graphic

Greece is governed by a caretaker administration pending an election on 25 June. Thousands of protesters rallied in Athens and the northern city of Thessaloniki on Thursday night demanding migration policies be eased.

Authorities were holding nine of the survivors, all men of Egyptian descent, on allegations of people-smuggling and participating in a criminal enterprise.

Arrested on Thursday night, they are suspected of masterminding the voyage to Italy from Tobruk in Libya, after first setting out from Egypt with the fishing trawler. There were conflicting reports about whether the ship’s captain was among those arrested, with some local media saying he had died when the vessel went down.

Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report

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Jon Henley and Helena Smith in Kalamata

Published: 2023-06-16 16:45:34

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