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Greek coast guard: 96 rescued from yacht carrying migrants

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — A broad search and rescue operation was extended into Wednesday night a day after a yacht smuggling migrants partially sank in the eastern Aegean Sea, Greece's coast guard said.

A total of 96 people were rescued from the sea 21 nautical miles (31 kilometers, 24 miles) west of the small island of Halki, near Rhodes, the coast guard said. As the full number of people who had been on board was not known, authorities were gathering testimonies and cross-referencing information to ensure there were no people missing. One coast guard vessel and three ships that had been sailing nearby continued the search.

The coast guard described the effort as “one of the largest and most successful search and rescue operations (ever) in the Aegean Sea,” noting that it took place mainly at night and that many of those rescued, including several children, had not been wearing life jackets.

It released dramatic footage showing rescuers plucking migrants, including at least one young child, from the sea and winching them to safety on a helicopter. Dozens of others were initially picked up by nearby cargo ships and then transferred to coast guard vessels.

Of those rescued, 72 were transported to Rhodes, five to the island of Karpathos and 19 were picked up from a cargo ship by the Turkish coast guard. Those taken to the Greek islands were being given coronavirus tests and housed in quarantine hotels.

Three of those rescued were arrested as suspected migrant smugglers, the coast guard said. Authorities were alerted after a passenger on board the yacht made an emergency call late Tuesday. They scrambled helicopters, naval and coast guard vessels, and several passing merchant ships also participated in the operation.

But Greece's coast guard said its efforts were hampered by the Turkish coast guard. The incident came during a crisis in Greek-Turkish relations, with the two neighbors in an acrimonious dispute over eastern Mediterranean offshore exploration rights.

The coast guard said in a statement that two Turkish patrol vessels arrived in the search and rescue area during the overnight operation, after a “large number” of people had already been rescued. It said the Turkish vessels did not notify the rescue operation coordinator about their presence and made no essential contribution to the effort. “Also, they were constantly calling on the nearby ships in the area to depart,” it said.

The Greek coast guard statement added that the Turkish patrol boats took 19 of the rescued migrants off a Maltese-flagged, Turkish-owned cargo ship that had picked them up, thereby hampering efforts to account for the number of rescued and determine whether there were people missing.

The Turkish coast guard issued its own statement Wednesday regarding a distress call 45 miles southwest of the Turkish coastal town of Datca. The statement said the coast guard sent three vessels to the area and rescued 18 migrants from a commercial ship, as well as one Turkish national who it said had been trying to leave Turkey. They were transferred to the Turkish port of Bodrum.

The Turkish coast guard statement did not mention the island of Halki or the Greek coast guard allegations, but the area it refers to suggests the incident described was the same one reported by Greece.

Thousands of people continue to make their way clandestinely to the Greek islands from the nearby Turkish coast, paying smugglers to ferry them in often unseaworthy, overcrowded inflatable dinghies or other vessels.

The Greek coast guard said smuggling gangs have recently begun using larger vessels, mainly sailboats and yachts, to ferry migrants from the Turkish coast directly to southern Italy. Such a route would mean the migrants would bypass Greece, where thousands languish in overcrowded camps instead of being able to head to their intended destination, usually more prosperous European countries further north.

At least 25 such incidents have occurred in the last three months, the coast guard said, adding that they had been handled by the Greek and the Italian coast guards. “Turkish authorities have been repeatedly informed about this particular phenomenon, without any response,” it said.

Suzan Fraser in Ankara contributed to this report.

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