KYTHIRA, Greece (AP) — Bodies floated amid splintered wreckage in the water off a Greek island on Thursday as the death toll from the sinking of two migrant boats rose to 21, and many are still missing.
The boats descended hundreds of miles apart, in one case sparking a dramatic rescue effort overnight, as residents and firefighters pulled shipwrecked migrants to safety on cliffs abrupt.
The deadly incidents have stoked tensions between neighbors Greece and Turkey, which are locked in a heated dispute over migration and maritime borders.
Coastguards on the eastern island of Lesbos said 16 bodies of young African women and a young man were found there after a dinghy carrying around 40 people sank. Ten women were rescued, while 13 other migrants were missing, coast guard officials said.
“The women who were rescued were in a state of complete panic, so we are still trying to figure out what happened,” coastguard spokesman Nikos Kokkalas told state television. “The women were all from African countries, aged 20 and over. … There is a search on land as well as at sea and we hope the survivors have made it ashore.”
The second rescue effort was launched several hundred kilometers (miles) west off the island of Kythira, where a sailboat struck rocks and sank.
The bodies of at least four migrants were seen among the floating debris of the sailboat. The deaths would be officially recorded when the bodies were found, officials said. They added that 80 people, from Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan, had been rescued while searches continued for 11 people still missing.
With winds in the area reaching 70 km/h (45 mph) overnight on Kythira, survivors clinging to ropes were pulled to safety over steep cliffs while others were buffeted by waves as they waited their turn on tiny rocky areas at the bottom.
“All the residents here have come down to the port to try to help,” local resident Martha Stathaki told The Associated Press.
“We could see the boat crashing against the rocks and people climbing over those rocks to try to save themselves. It was an incredible show.
Kythira is about 400 kilometers (250 miles) west of Turkey and on a route often used by smugglers to bypass Greece and head straight for Italy.
A volatile dispute is taking place between Greece and Turkey over the safety of migrants at sea, with Athens accusing its neighbor of failing to arrest smugglers active on its coastline and even of using migrants to exert political pressure on the Union European.
Most migrants arrive in Greece from neighboring Turkey, but smugglers have changed routes – often taking more risks – in recent months in a bid to avoid the heavily guarded waters around Greek islands near the coast. Turkish.
“Once again, Turkey’s tolerance of ruthless trafficking gangs has cost human lives,” Greek Navy Minister Yannis Plakiotakis said.
“Until the Turkish Coast Guard prevents their activities, the traffickers will cram the unfortunates, without safety measures, into boats that cannot withstand the weather conditions, putting their lives in mortal danger.”
Turkey denies the allegations and has publicly accused Greece of carrying out reckless summary expulsions, known as pushbacks.
Speaking before the United Nations General Assembly last month, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused Greece of “turning the Aegean Sea into a graveyard” and held up photographs of dead migrant children. ___ Full Coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/migration