Greek coast guard defends rescue operation of migrants after boat disaster, as questions mount
ATHENS, Greece (AP) -- Greece's coast guard defended its actions Friday in the deadly sinking of a ship carrying hundreds of migrants off the country's south coast, indicating that a 72-hour rescue operation would be extended.
Patrol boats and a helicopter continued to scour the area where the fishing vessel packed with hundreds of people capsized and sank early Wednesday. Rescuers pulled 104 people from the water and later recovered 78 bodies, but the rescue operation has failed to locate any more since late Wednesday.
Several hundred others are believed to have gone down with the vessel, which sank while traveling across the Mediterranean from Libya to Italy.
The rescue operation has created political controversy as Greece heads to a general election on June 25, and triggered large protests in Athens that turned violent late Thursday and led to 21 arrests.
Left-wing opposition leader Alexis Tsipras visited survivors and said the coast guard should have towed the ship to safety as it approached Greek waters --- a concern echoed by human rights organizations.
"The Greek government had specific responsibilities toward every passenger on the vessel, which was clearly in distress," Adriana Tidona of Amnesty International said. "This is a tragedy of unimaginable proportions, all the more so because it was entirely preventable."
Coast guard spokesperson Nikos Alexiou said the vessel was being followed by the coast guard and private vessels in international waters before it sank and denied reports citing survivors that a patrol boat had tried to tow the fishing boat.
He said repeated offers of assistance were rejected in radio communications with the vessel as well as calls made over a loudspeaker.
A judicial investigation is underway into the causes of the sinking. Greek officials say the vessel capsized minutes after it lost power, speculating that panic among the passengers may have caused the boat to list and capsize.
The trawler may have carried as many as 750 passengers, according to the International Organization for Migration, the U.N. migration agency.
Most of the survivors were being moved Friday from a storage hangar at the southern port of Kalamata, where relatives also gathered to look for loved ones, to migrant shelters near Athens.
Nine people -- all men from Egypt, ranging in age from 20 to 40 -- were arrested and detained on allegations of people smuggling and participating in a criminal enterprise. Twenty-seven of the survivors remain hospitalized, health officials said.
Alexiou, citing survivor accounts, said passengers in the hold of the fishing boat included woman and children but that the number of missing, believed to be in the hundreds, remained unclear.
Officials at a state-run morgue outside Athens photographed the faces of the victims and gathered DNA samples to start the identification process.
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