ATHENS — A freighter crammed with hundreds of migrants trying to enter Europe illegally was drifting in high winds off the Mediterranean Sea island of Crete on Nov. 24 and Greek authorities launched a rescue mission with five ships.
A Coast Guard statement said the 77-meter-long (250-foot) Baris cargo ship suffered engine failure some 30 nautical miles southeast of Crete.
Four merchant ships and a Greek navy frigate reached the area to evacuate the vessel, if necessary. Authorities also were examining the possibility of towing the ship to safety.
The Coast Guard said an estimated 500 to 700 people are aboard the freighter — flying the flag of Kiribati, a small Pacific Ocean island — but their nationalities, port of departure and exact destination were not known.
Tens of thousands of refugees, including many from war-torn Syria and Libya, enter Europe illegally every year. Many pay organized smuggling gangs to ferry them across the Mediterranean from northern Africa or Turkey to Italy and Greece.
Hundreds die every year while attempting the hazardous crossing in unseaworthy, overcrowded vessels ranging from inflatable dinghies to battered old freighters. More than 150,000 people have arrived this year in Italy, whose proximity to Libya means it bears the brunt of the influx.
On Nov. 23, some 228 men, women and children were rescued from a crippled ship off Cyprus, in the eastern Mediterranean. They told officials they were Syrian refugees and had been hoping to reach Italy.