An air and sea rescue operation was launched on Wednesday after about 50 people went missing when a boat carrying migrants sank in the Aegean Sea, Greece’s coast guard said.
The vessel sank at dawn off the islands of Karpathos and Rhodes after setting sail on Tuesday from Antalya, in southern Turkey, bound for Italy.
“According to the statements of the 29 rescued, there were 80 people on the boat, so up to 50 people are considered missing,” a Coast Guard press officer told AFP.
But state broadcaster ERT said there were between 30 and 60 people on board.
Coastguard spokesman Nikos Kokalas told the channel: “It is impossible for a boat to carry 80 migrants. We are talking about a smaller number.”
The rescue operation, ordered by Merchant Shipping Minister Yanis Plakiotakis, involved four vessels already sailing in the southern Aegean Sea, two coast guard patrol boats and a Greek Air Force helicopter, according to a statement from the coast guard.
Strong winds of up to 50 kilometers per hour (30 mph) hampered the operation, Kokalas told Skai radio.
“Many of those who were shipwrecked were not wearing life jackets,” Kokalas said.
A video released by the Coast Guard shows a military helicopter rescuing two survivors from the sea and taking them to Karpathos.
Another 27 people were transferred to land aboard a tanker that joined the search off the island of Kos, the coast guard said.
– Dozens of deaths –
Although the migrant boat appears to have been trying to reach Italy, Greece is often the country of choice for people fleeing Africa and the Middle East to try to reach a better life in the European Union.
Thousands are coming to Greece via Turkey, a narrow and dangerous sea crossing that separates the traditional enemies.
Since January, 64 people have died in the eastern Mediterranean, according to the International Organization for Migration.
Eight people died near the Greek island of Mykonos on June 19, and another 108 were rescued, according to the UN migration agency.
Greece’s coast guard said on Sunday that 122 migrants had been rescued off Rhodes after their vessel crashed after leaving Turkey.
Athens says the number of migrants has risen this year and accuses Ankara of not doing enough to stop smugglers sending them across the border – often on rickety boats that make dangerous journeys.
Under the 2016 agreement, Turkey promised to reduce the number of migrants leaving its shores in exchange for financial aid from the European Union.
At the end of June, the EU called on Ankara to stop “violent and illegal expulsions” from its territory.
Charities and the media have accused Athens of illegally returning migrants, a charge Greece’s conservative government denies.