ATHENS — A major search and rescue operation was underway Tuesday for dozens of people reported missing after the boat they were on capsized and sank in stormy weather overnight off the coast of an island near the Greek capital.
The incident was the latest in a series of recent shipwrecks involving migrant boats in Greek seas that have left dozens of people dead or missing.
The coast guard said nine survivors, all men, had been found on an uninhabited islet south of the island of Evia and had been picked up by a coast guard vessel in the early hours of Tuesday. None had been wearing lifejackets, the coast guard said. The survivors told authorities there had been about 68 people on board the sailing boat when it sank, and that they had initially set sail from Izmir on the Turkish coast.
The rescue operation was being hampered by particularly rough weather, with gale force winds, the coast guard said. The area where the boat sank, the Kafireas Strait between the islands of Evia and Andros, is notoriously treacherous, with even light winds kicking up rough seas.
Images of the rescue operation released by the coast guard showed a small group of people standing on rocks beneath a cliff waving for help, and waves crashing over the coast guard patrol boat during the night-time search and rescue. A photo released by the coast guard showed the survivors wrapped in emergency foil blankets sitting on the deck of the patrol boat.
The coast guard said authorities were initially alerted by a distress call in the early hours of Tuesday from passengers saying the boat they were on was in trouble, but they did not provide a location. A helicopter, a coast guard patrol boat and two nearby ships were participating in the search and rescue operation.
A separate search and rescue operation was also ongoing since Monday off the coast of the eastern Aegean island of Samos for eight people reported missing after an inflatable dinghy carrying migrants overturned. Four survivors were rescued Monday from that incident. A coast guard aircraft and patrol boat, two nearby ships and a vessel from the European border patrol agency Frontex were participating in the search, authorities said.
Thousands of people fleeing conflict and poverty in Africa, Asia and the Middle East attempt to enter the European Union through Greece each year. Most make the short but often perilous crossing from the Turkish coast to nearby Greek islands in inflatable dinghies. Others opt to attempt to circumvent Greece in overcrowded sailboats and yachts heading straight to Italy.
Earlier this month, at least 27 people drowned in two separate incidents. In one, 18 people died when a boat that had set sail from Turkey sank off the eastern Aegean island of Lesbos, while in the other, a yacht carrying about 100 people sank in a gale, killing at least nine and leaving six missing.
Off the coast of Italy, more than 900 migrants rescued by charity boats in various operations over the last few days waited aboard crowded vessels on Tuesday in hopes Italian authorities would assign ports for disembarkation. So far, Italy’s new far-right-led government is keeping to earlier governments’ policy of not immediately granting authorization for the migrants to come ashore.
Anti-migrant League leader Matteo Salvini is part of Italy’s new governing coalition, whose interior minister has said he’ll crack down on boats suspected of aiding illegal immigration.
Separately some 280 migrants stepped ashore on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa on Tuesday, while hundreds of others were transferred from the island’s chronically overcrowded housing for asylum seekers to larger facilities in Sicily or the mainland.