ATHENS — Greek authorities ramped up a major sea-and-air search and rescue operation in the Aegean Sea on Wednesday after a migrant smuggling vessel sank, leaving at least three people dead and dozens reported missing.
The coast guard said 12 people, all believed to be from Iraq, were rescued from an inflatable dinghy off the island of Folegandros in the southern Cyclades, 180 kilometers (112 miles) southeast of Athens. The 11 men and one woman were taken to a hospital on the nearby island of Santorini as a precaution.
The bodies of three unidentified men were recovered from the sea.
The survivors said they had been on a larger boat that took on water and sank overnight. Most said there were originally 32 people on the boat, but one told authorities there were about 50.
The coast guard said a navy frigate joined four coast guard vessels, 8 merchant ships, three smaller private vessels, three military helicopters and a military transport plane taking part in the search and rescue operation as night approached.
“The survivors made it onto a dinghy that was tethered to the (bigger) vessel. Only two of them were wearing life jackets,” Coast Guard spokesman Nikos Kokkalas told state-run ERT television. “We always presume the worst-case scenario, in this case that 50 people were on the boat.”
The coast guard said the operation began Tuesday night after it received information that a vessel carrying migrants had suffered engine failure and later began taking on water south of Folegandros.
Greece is one of the most popular routes into the European Union for people fleeing conflict and poverty in Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Most attempt to cross in dinghies from the Turkish shore to the nearby eastern Aegean Greek islands.
But with increased patrols and allegations of summary deportations back to Turkey for those who arrive, many have been attempting lengthier routes on larger vessels. Folegandros, one of the southern islands in the Cyclades, is not along a usual route for migrant smugglers.
Other vessels have bypassed the Greek islands and headed directly from Turkey to Italy.
Turkey has allowed human traffickers to keep sending them in violation of an essentially-suspended 2016 swap deal with the European Union which closed its borders to them, dumping the problem largely on Greece.
Greece’s New Democracy government has taken a hard line in trying to keep them out, including adding sea patrols with the aid of the EU’s border patrol agency FRONTEX, which has made those trying to reach Greece use routes less likely to be covered.
Folegandros, one of the southern islands in the Cyclades, is not along a usual route for migrant smugglers while some of the vessels skip Greece and try to reach Italy further on.
On Nov. 22, a migrant died southwest of the Greek island of Crete, as the boat he was traveling one started to take in water. Another 70 migrants were rescued from the sinking vessel.
Local media reported that were was a small number of women and minors among the survivors. According to the Coast Guard spokesman, all migrants on board the boat were Syrian nationals, said InfoMigrants.
There were unconfirmed media reports, saying that two people from the boat had been arrested as human traffickers. The spokesman would not confirm those reports. An investigation into the case was opened.
(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)
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