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Greece: 22 dead, dozens missing after two migrant ships sink

Greece: 22 dead, dozens missing after two migrant ships sink
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KYTHIRA, Greece (AP) – Bodies floated among shattered debris in the windswept waters off a Greek island on Thursday as the death toll from the separate sinkings of two migrant boats rose to 22, many of whom are still missing.

The ships crashed hundreds of miles apart, in one case leading to dramatic overnight rescue efforts as islanders and firefighters dragged shipwrecked migrants up steep cliffs to safety.

The shipwrecks have further fueled tensions between neighbors Greece and Turkey, which are locked in a heated dispute over maritime borders and migration.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis expressed “deep sadness at the tragic loss of life” and praised the rescuers’ “heroic” efforts.

“This is a time to really work together much more substantively to prevent such incidents in the future and to completely eradicate the smugglers who exploit innocent people” trying to reach Europe in unseaworthy boats, Mitsotakis added.

The Coast Guard on the Greek east island of Lesvos said the bodies of 16 young African women, a man and a boy were recovered after a dinghy carrying about 40 people sank. Ten women were rescued while 12 other migrants were reported missing, Coast Guard officials said.

The last recovered body of a man was found by divers from the European Union border protection agency Frontex, who were helping with the search and rescue operation, the Coast Guard said.

“The rescued women were in full panic so we are still trying to find out what happened,” coastguard spokesman Nikos Kokkalas told Greek state television. “The women all came from African countries and were over 20 years old. … Searches are being made both on land and at sea, and we hope survivors have made it to land.”

The second rescue operation was launched several hundred kilometers (miles) southwest of the island of Kythira, where a sailing boat struck rocks and sank.

The bodies of at least four migrants were seen among floating wreckage from the yacht beneath the cliffs. The deaths would be officially registered when the bodies were recovered, officials said. They added that 80 people have been rescued from Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan, while the search continues for up to 11 who are still believed to be missing.

With winds reaching 70 kilometers per hour at night on Kythira, survivors holding on to ropes were dragged up sheer cliffs, while others were thrown about by waves as they waited their turn on tiny rocks at the bottom.

“All of the residents here have gone to the port to try to help,” Martha Stathaki, a local resident, told The Associated Press.

“We could see the boat crashing against the rocks and people climbing on those rocks to try to save themselves. It was an incredible sight.”

Kythira is about 400 kilometers west of Turkey and on a route often used by smugglers to bypass Greece and go straight to Italy.

A heated row is raging between Greece and Turkey over the safety of migrants at sea, with Athens accusing its neighbor of failing to stop smugglers active on its coast and even using migrants to exert political pressure on the European Union.

Most migrants reaching Greece come from nearby Turkey, but smugglers have changed route in recent months – often at greater risk-taking – to avoid heavily patrolled waters around the eastern Greek islands near Turkey’s coast.

“Once again, Turkey’s tolerance of unscrupulous human traffickers has cost lives,” said Greek Shipping Minister Yannis Plakiotakis.

“As long as the Turkish Coast Guard does not prevent their activities, the smugglers will stuff unsafe people into boats that cannot withstand the weather conditions and put their lives in danger.”

Turkey denies the allegations and has publicly accused Greece of carrying out ruthless summary deportations, so-called pushbacks.

Addressing the United Nations General Assembly last month, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused Greece of “turning the Aegean Sea into a graveyard” and held up photos of dead migrant children. ___ Follow AP’s coverage of global migration: https://apnews.com/hub/migration

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