(Update: adds migrants’ accounts of how boat capsized)
Athens, Jun 16 (EFE).- Hopes of finding more survivors after a fishing boat carrying hundreds of migrants and refugees capsized in the Ionian Sea off the Greek coast were fading Friday, as search and rescue efforts continued.
So far authorities have confirmed at least 78 dead and 104 survivors, including eight children, after the trawler capsized on Wednesday off the southern Greek Peloponnese peninsula.
“At this stage, it will be extremely difficult to find anyone alive,” a spokeswoman for the Greek Coast Guard told EFE.
Greek media have cited survivors who say the boat capsized after the Coast Guard tried to tow it with a rope, but spokesman Nikos Alexiu has denied those allegations, insisting that “there was never any attempt to tie up (with the trawler)” by the authorities.
A few hours later, however, interim government spokesman Ilias Siakandaris told ERT public television that the Coast Guard had used a rope “to approach (the ship) to see if they wanted help”.
But he clarified that “it was not a mooring rope”, so there was never any attempt to tow the trawler.
The Greek coastguard has been heavily criticized by international organizations and in the media for not intervening when they first saw the overcrowded vessel, but officials have said it refused their offers of assistance.
Search and rescue efforts continued throughout Thursday night to no avail.
According to local media, between 500 and 700 immigrants were traveling aboard the 30-meter-long boat.
Five ships, including a Navy patrol boat and helicopter, continued to comb the area on Friday but the operation has been hampered by strong winds.
According to statements from members of the search and rescue team quoted by Greek media, the boat had departed from Egypt, docked in eastern Libya and then followed a route to Italy.
Around 100 children and many women were found in the boat’s hold, according to survivor accounts published by the local press.
Authorities on Thursday arrested nine Egyptian men who survived the accident. They now face charges of conspiring to traffic undocumented migrants, causing a shipwreck and endangering lives.
All other rescued migrants were being transferred from the port city of Kalamata to a reception camp on the outskirts of Athens, to be identified.
The eight rescued children will be transferred to state residential homes for minors, Greek media reported.
The Greek Coast Guard has drawn criticism from the international community and NGOs for failing to intervene once it had located the crowded boat as it sailed in international waters south of the Greek peninsula on Tuesday.
But Coast Guard spokesman Nikos Alexiu told Skai television that “a sudden intervention to rescue a boat with many people could produce a sudden change of load, which would cause the boat to sink.”
“We remained nearby in case they needed assistance and that is what we did,” he added.
Thousands took to the streets in Greece on Thursday to protest the European Union’s and the Greek government’s migration policies, which according to demonstrators have turned the bloc into a “fortress” and the Mediterranean into “a sea of corpses”. EFE