Hundreds of mostly Syrian refugees rescued by a cruise liner in the Mediterranean have disembarked in Cyprus after hours of refusing to budge and demanding to go to Italy.

A total of 345 migrants, mainly women and children, had been plucked from a boat in trouble off the coast of Cyprus on Thursday by a Salamis Cruise Lines ship, according to the company and Cypriot authorities.

About 700 paying passengers disembarked from the 157-metre liner, police said, but at first, only 65 of those rescued at sea left the ship.

The others refused to budge, the shipping company said, before authorities managed to convince the rest to disembark.

"We were supposed to sail at 10:30 tonight [21:30 GMT], unfortunately these people want to negotiate," Kikis Vassiliou, managing director of Salamis Cruise Lines, told reporters. "They want us to send them to Italy."

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"We did our outmost to save their lives, to give them food, support and now they want to destroy this company," he added, speaking of several hundred thousands of dollars in losses.

"There is no responsible person to negotiate and to explain the situation," he said.

The 65 refugees who willingly left the ship originally were bussed to the Kokkinotrimithia camp not far from Nicosia.

Meanwhile 300 Russian passengers, who had been due to continue their cruise to Haifa, Israel, had their journey cancelled and were put up in Limmasol hotels.

Earlier, the defence ministry had said the rescue operation had been "completed smoothly and without any injury".
The aid workers said eight of those rescued were suffering from dehydration, while some others had "minor" problems.

One passenger said a refugee had told her they had sailed from Syria and been at sea for three days and that their skipper had abandoned them.

"The captain of their boat made a phone call and a speed boat came and took the captain," said Chrystalla Eflatsoumis, 66.

Among the refugees were "many pregnant women and 20 babies," she added.

According to the UN's refugee agency, UNHCR, more than 2,500 people have drowned or gone missing attempting to cross from North Africa and the Middle East to Europe this year, often aboard rickety and overcrowded boats.

Earlier this month, 500 people were feared drowned after their boat sank off Malta, with just 10 people rescued alive.

Source: Agencies