Dramatic rescues as boats sink off Greece; at least 21 dead

KYTHIRA, Greece — Residents on a Greek island dragged shipwrecked migrants to safety over sheer cliffs in dramatic rescue operations after two boats sank in Greek waters, killing at least 21 and many still missing.

The Coast Guard on the eastern island of Lesvos said 16 bodies of young African women and a young man were recovered there after a dinghy carrying about 40 people sank. Ten women were rescued while 13 other migrants were reported missing, Coast Guard officials said.

“The rescued women were in full panic so we’re still trying to figure out what happened,” Coast Guard spokesman Nikos Kokkalas told 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.”

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The second rescue attempt was launched several hundred kilometers west of the island of Kythira, where a sailing boat hit rocks and sank. The bodies of at least four migrants were seen next to floating debris from the sailboat. 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 up to 70 km/h (45 mph) in the area, rescue workers from the fire brigade and local volunteers on Kythira lowered ropes to help migrants climb sea cliffs.

Survivors holding on to ropes were dragged to safety on sheer cliffs, while others were pounded by waves as they waited their turn on tiny rocks at the bottom.

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“Every resident here went to the port 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.

The deaths come amid a heated dispute 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.

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

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“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 without safety precautions, putting their lives in mortal danger.”

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

Last month, during a speech to the United Nations General Assembly, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused Greece of “turning the Aegean Sea into a graveyard” and held up photos of dead migrant children.

Most migrants reaching Greece come from nearby Turkey, but smugglers have changed routes in recent months to avoid heavily patrolled waters around the Greek islands near the Turkish coast. ——— Full coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/migration

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