By Our Reporter
A major rescue operation is under way after a migrant boat carrying hundreds of people capsized south of the Greek island of Crete.
The International Organisation for Migration said more than 700 people were believed to have been on board on the wooden vessel, which was heading to Italy.
The Greek coastguard said it had heard there were 400 or 500 people on board, but it could it not confirm the number. More than 340 people have been rescued and four bodies recovered after the boat started taking on water.
“The number of people in distress could be counted in the hundreds,” a Greek coastguard spokeswoman told Agence France-Presse. “People are in the water, boats crossing the area have thrown lifebuoys and are moving to save the migrants.”
She said a passing ship spotted the sinking vessel about 75 nautical miles south of Crete in the southern Aegean Sea. The coastguard rushed two patrol boats, a plane and a helicopter to the scene while at least four ships in the area joined the rescue.
About half of the roughly 82ft boat was underwater. The rescue operation is taking place in international waters, and Egyptian authorities are also involved.
Separately, Libya’s navy spokesman said more than 100 bodies had been recovered after a boat capsized off its shores last week.
At least 1,000 people have died or are missing and presumed dead after a string of deadly incidents in the Mediterranean over the past week, according to the IOM.
The group said on Tuesday that estimated deaths until the end of May rose to 2,443 on all Mediterranean routes after a surge in reported shipwrecks and other incidents in recent days. The number of estimated deaths is 34% higher than the first five months of 2015. The spate of deaths has caused the IOM to revise its previous assessment.
“For the first three weeks of May 2016, IOM estimated just 13 fatalities in three incidents,” the organisation said. “None of them occurred on the eastern Mediterranean route between Turkey and Greece, where through the first four months of the year nearly 400 migrants and refugees drowned. We saw this as a hopeful trend. The events of
this past week – with at least 1,000 deaths – have obviously changed our assessment. The past eight days marks one of the deadliest periods yet in the migration crisis, which is now in its fourth year.”
About 204,000 migrants and refugees have crossed the Mediterranean since January – more than double the nearly 92,000 who arrived in Europe during the first five months of 2015, according to the IOM. By the end of last year more than one million had made the trip.
Hundreds of thousands of mainly Syrian refugees took the short but dangerous route to Greece from Turkey last year in small inflatable boats. That crossing was virtually sealed after a controversial deal between the EU and Turkey in March. Now, warm weather and calmer seas have led to a surge in the number of people trying to reach Italy from
Libya, where people-smugglers operate with relative impunity.