Story highlights

  • At least nine die after refugee boat capsizes
  • Authorities say at least 340 have been rescued
  • Total number on board unconfirmed
  • In past few weeks around 1,000 refugees have died trying to reach Europe

At least nine bodies have been recovered and 340 people rescued from a sinking boat carrying a "significant number" of refugees in the Mediterranean Sea south of the Greek island of Crete, authorities say.

The coastguard on Friday said the roughly 25-metre vessel, which resembled a large fishing boat, had been carrying an undetermined number of people when it was located half-sunk about 75 nautical miles (140km) from Crete in international waters, and within Egypt's search and rescue area of operation.

Greece was sending two patrol vessels, a military airplane and three helicopters, while five passing ships were participating in the rescue operation and one more was on its way. The coastguard said the operation was continuing to locate any potentially missing passengers from the boat.

It was not immediately clear where the boat's passengers were from, or where the vessel had set off from or was heading to.

"The information we have on the number of people on board the vessel is still unclear - we've heard that there were 400 or 500 people on board, but we cannot confirm that number," coastguard spokesman Nikos Lagadianos said. "There is a huge rescue effort under way."

UNHCR: 2,500 refugees drowned on way to Europe so far in 2016

It was not immediately clear where the survivors will be taken. Authorities in southern Crete said temporary shelter space - possibly sports facilities - was being sought on the island to house people if they are taken there.

Dangerous alternative routes

Smugglers have opted for more dangerous routes after a March agreement. The short crossing from the Turkish coast to Greek islands was the preferred route for those heading to Europe until Balkan countries closed their borders and the European Union reached an agreement with Turkey to stem the flow of people.

Under that deal, those arriving on Greek islands from March 20 onwards face deportation back to Turkey unless they successfully apply for asylum in Greece, a financially troubled country few want to stay in.

The deal has led to a dramatic decrease in the number of people arriving on Greek islands from Turkey. However, the agreement has led refugees to seek alternative routes, with many attempting the much longer and more dangerous crossing from North Africa towards Italy.

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), at least 1,000 people have died in the past few weeks when overcrowded boats attempting the crossing sank.

More than one million refugees arrived in Europe last year. With 3,771 deaths, 2015 was the deadliest year on record for crossing the Mediterranean trying to reach Europe, the IOM has said.

Source: Agencies