Greek authorities have retrieved a further three bodies in open waters near the spot where a fishing trawler packed with Europe-bound migrants sank last week.
The bodies – all men – were recovered late on Monday, the sixth day of a search and rescue operation in the area, raising the official death toll to 81.
“Three bodies were located in international waters 47 nautical miles south-west of [the Greek town] of Pylos … and transferred to the port of Kalamata,” the Hellenic coastguard said. “The investigation continues.”
The operation, involving a naval frigate and three coast guard vessels, had been due to end on Saturday, three days after the trawler, piloted by smugglers who picked up their human cargo in Libya, set sail on 9 June. It capsized with as many as 750 men, women and children on board at about midnight UK time last Tuesday.
The discovery of the bodies so many days later was described as both “unexpected and encouraging” by Greek maritime officials, who said the operation would go on “for as long as it takes”. So far, 104 survivors have been found.
Relatives have flocked to Greece desperately seeking news of loved ones. “In our culture, in the worst case scenario, all anything a relative ever wants to do is to able to bury a loved one,” said Shahid Nawas, a refugee who presides over Greece’s 30,000-strong Pakistani community. “There were over 400 Pakistani nationals on that boat and only 12 are among those who survived.”
Authorities are working on the premise that the hundreds of passengers still missing are dead.
Amid mounting criticism of the way the disaster was handled by Greek authorities – which were first alerted to the vessel about 15 hours before it capsized – nine people suspected of being behind the smuggling operation appeared before a prosecutor in Kalamata on Tuesday. The suspects, who are all Egyptian and aged between 20 and 40, according to state-run TV, categorically denied piloting the doomed ship.
The men, who were detained after questioning by coast guard officials, face charges ranging from involuntary manslaughter to membership of a criminal gang to provoking a shipwreck and endangering human life. The public prosecutor is due to decide whether all nine should be imprisoned pending trial.
In emotional scenes on Monday, before lawyers requested a 24-hour adjournment of proceedings, relatives who had gathered outside the court shouted the names of loved ones still missing as the accused were taken into the building. Others attempted to show court officials and lawyers pictures of relatives on their mobile phones.
Greek coast guard officials have rebuffed allegations that they deliberately failed to intervene for fear that such a large group of migrants were being brought ashore. Instead they claim that while a vessel was dispatched to the area, the stricken boat’s crew members repeatedly turned down offers of assistance saying: “No help … [we] go Italy.”
The country’s civil protection minister, Vangelis Tournas, said last week that Greek authorities had been unable to take action earlier because the trawler was in international waters.
But it is a version of events that has been contradicted by maritime tracking data that has emerged since the tragedy, with legal experts saying that with the vessel clearly in distress, a rescue operation should have been launched much earlier. The data has suggested the ship, afflicted by engine trouble almost from the outset, was stationary for several hours before it sank.
The Greek coast guard has said the boat was travelling “on a steady course” through international waters – an argument it repeated late on Monday, saying the trawler covered a distance of 24 nautical miles on the day of the incident.
Helena Smith in Athens
Published: 2023-06-20 13:55:21