Greece has mounted a rescue operation for a cargo ship carrying about 400 migrants and refugees after it sent out a distress signal off the island of Crete, according to the country’s coastguard.
The Greek coastguard quoted passengers as saying the Turkish-flagged vessel had sailed from Turkey, calling Friday’s response “one of the largest search and rescue operations carried out in the Eastern Mediterranean”.
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Greek authorities, who had earlier been informed that the ship was crippled and in need of assistance, said it was being taken to land but gave no further details. The nationalities of the passengers were not immediately made public.
“Right now, the important thing is to get the ship to a safe anchorage,” an official with knowledge of the operation told The Associated Press news agency. The official spoke on condition of anonymity.
A photograph posted by the Greek coastguard on its website showed scores of people, apparently mostly men, standing in groups on the deck of a small, battered-looking freighter with what appeared to be the name “Vatha” painted on its bows.
Greece is one of the main routes into the European Union for migrants and refugees crossing from neighbouring Turkey.
On Tuesday, four people drowned when a dinghy carrying them and 23 others sank off the Greek island of Chios, in the Aegean Sea, after setting out from Turkey.
Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi said in the wake of the incident that Turkish authorities had to take firmer action against criminal people smuggling operations and prevent such journeys from taking place.
Athens has frequently blamed Ankara for not taking sufficient action to curb smugglers who send out migrants and refugees in unsafe boats and dinghies from its shores.
In 2016, Turkey signed a deal with the EU aimed at curtailing migrant and refugee arrivals from the country into Greece in return for some incentives, including financial assistance.
Since then the number of crossings has fallen sharply, though not stopped altogether, and deadly shipwrecks in Greece’s waters have become rare.
But Turkey, which hosts approximately four million refugees, has repeatedly called for a review of the 2016 deal, arguing the EU has failed to keep to the promises it set out in the pact.
Nearly one million people, mainly Syrian refugees, arrived in the EU in 2015 after crossing to Greek islands close to Turkey. Since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August, many EU states fear a replay of that crisis.