KALAMATA, GREECE (REUTERS) – Rescuers scoured the seas off Greece on Thursday following a shipwreck that killed at least 78 migrants, as hopes of survivors dwindled and fears grew that hundreds more, including children, may have drowned inside the crowded vessel’s hold.
Reports suggested between 400 and 750 people had packed the fishing boat that departed the Libyan port of Tobruk and capsized and sank early on Wednesday morning in deep waters about 50 miles (80 km) from the southern coastal town of Pylos. Greek authorities said 104 survivors had been brought ashore.
Outside the coast guard office in the port city of Kalamata, where survivors were being transferred, a Syrian man whose wife was missing after the shipwreck was seeking answers.
Kassam Abozeed, who lives in Germany, said he last heard from his wife Israa eight days ago. She had paid $4,500 (4,124 euros) to travel on the boat, the 34-year-old said, showing a photograph of her on his phone.
Even before the vessel began to flounder late on Tuesday night, people on the vessel’s crowded outer deck repeatedly turned down attempted assistance from a Greek coast guard boat that was shadowing it, saying they wanted to reach Italy, according to Greek authorities.
“You cannot carry out a violent diversion on such a vessel with so many people on board… without any sort of cooperation,” coast guard spokesperson Nikos Alexiou told state broadcaster ERT.
A shipping ministry official said nine people were arrested over the shipwreck.
As Greece declared three days of mourning, authorities said it was unclear how many had been aboard.
A European rescue-support charity said there could have been 750 people on the 20- to 30 metre-long (65- to 100-foot) boat. U.N.’s International Organization for Migration said initial reports suggested up to 400 people were aboard. Its refugee agency, the UNHCR, said hundreds were feared missing.
“The shipwreck off Pylos marks one of the largest sea tragedies in the Mediterranean in recent memory,” Maria Clara, the UNHCR representative in Greece, told Reuters, adding the UNHCR urged Mediterranean states to establish a fast and predictable search and rescue regime and increase safe routes.
Pope Francis, who visited Greece two years ago to draw attention to the plight of refugees, was “deeply dismayed to learn of the shipwreck… with its devastating loss of life,” the Vatican said in a statement.
‘OUR LAST NIGHT ALIVE’
On Thursday, bodies of the victims were transferred to a cemetery near Athens for DNA tests. The search operation had not recovered any bodies in the past 24 hours. Government sources said chances of retrieving the sunken vessel were remote because of the depth of the water.
Aerial pictures released by the Greek coast guard showed dozens of people on the boat’s upper and lower decks looking up, some with arms outstretched, hours before it sank.
Alarm Phone, which operates a trans-European network supporting rescue operations, said it received alerts from people on board a ship in distress off Greece late on Tuesday and that it had alerted Greek authorities. The captain had fled on a small boat, it said.
Government officials said that before capsizing and sinking around 2 a.m. on Wednesday, the vessel’s engine stopped and it began veering from side to side.
Independent refugee activist Nawal Soufi said in a Facebook post that she was contacted by migrants aboard the vessel in the early hours of Tuesday, and that she had been in contact with them until 11 p.m.
“The whole time they asked me what they should do and I kept telling them that Greek help would come. In this last call, the man I was talking to expressly told me: ‘I feel that this will be our last night alive,'” she wrote.
Greece is one of the main routes into the European Union for refugees and migrants from the Middle East, Asia and Africa.
Under a conservative government in power until last month, Greece has taken a harder stance on migration, building walled camps and boosting border controls.
The country is currently governed by a caretaker administration pending an election on June 25.
Asked whether Italy was involved in the incident, its Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi said on Thursday that the shipwreck occurred in Greece’s search and rescue area.
“But that does not mean that Greece is to blame, it is just circumscribing specific areas of responsibility,” he told Italy’s SkyTG24 TV channel.
Greece’s government spokesman told Reuters that “on illegal migration, EU border states face similar humanitarian disasters and share the same challenges. The biggest of them all is forging a comprehensive EU solution on migration and asylum that respects international law and inclusive humanism.”
Leftist leader Alexis Tsipras, prime minister in 2015-2019 at the peak of Europe’s migration crisis, blamed its migration policy for the incident during a visit in Kalamata on Thursday It “turns the Mediterranean, our seas, into watery graves,” he said.
Libya, which has had little stability or security since a NATO-backed uprising in 2011, is a major launching point for those seeking to reach Europe by sea, its people-smuggling networks mainly run by military factions that control coastal areas.
The United Nations has registered more than 20,000 deaths and disappearances in the central Mediterranean since 2014, making it the most dangerous migrant crossing in the world.