ATHENS — Greece’s coast guard defended its actions in responding to a fishing boat that sank off its southern peninsula while carrying hundreds of migrants Wednesday, leading to one of the largest tragedies in the Mediterranean in recent history.
At least 78 people died and hundreds of others are considered missing, according to the U.N.’s migration agency, IOM, and its refugee agency, UNHCR. Aerial photos of the vessel before it sank, released by Greek authorities, showed people crammed on the deck without any lifejackets.
Greek authorities said they had tracked the vessel since Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, said its aircraft spotted the boat Tuesday and warned Greece and Italy.
The Greek authorities claimed the people on board, some thought to be the smugglers who had arranged the boat from Libya, were refusing assistance and insisting on reaching Italy, and did not intervene until the next day despite being monitored by the Greek coast guard for more than 15 hours
Critics in Greece said the coast guard should not have been steered by what some people on board, potentially smugglers, wanted. One expert said maritime law required Greek authorities to attempt a rescue since the boat was unsafe and was in the Greek search and rescue area.
“We don’t ask on a runaway boat if they need help, we have to do the right thing,” retired Greek coast guard Admiral Nikos Spanos told national broadcaster ERT.
Migration and border security have been some of the key issues in Greece’s pre-election agenda. Under the conservative New Democracy government, in power until last month, the country adopted a tough migration policy. Late last month, the EU urged Greece to launch a probe into its own alleged illegal deportations.
Greece is currently led by a caretaker government ahead of national elections on June 25.
According to testimonies from survivors, the fishing vessel departed from Egypt, then picked up passengers in the Libyan coastal city of Tobruk on June 10, who paid $4,500 each to go to Italy. Survivors said the coast guard tied up the vessel with rope and attempted to pull it, causing the boat to sway.
The Hellenic Coast Guard said Friday a patrol vessel approached and used a “small buoy” to engage the vessel.
“This procedure lasted a few minutes and then after the small buoy was untied by the migrants themselves, the patrol moved away and watched the vessel from a close distance,” said Hellenic coast guard spokesman Nikos Alexiou Friday on state broadcaster ERT. “There was no effort to tug the boat.”
He defended the lack of action taken by the coast guard, adding: “You cannot carry out a violent diversion on such a vessel with so many people on board, without them wanting to, without any sort of cooperation.”
Amnesty International said it is deeply concerned about the lack of clarity in the Greek authorities’ version of the incident.
“The Greek government had specific responsibilities toward every passenger on the vessel, which was clearly in distress,” said the organization in a statement.
Nine people, most of them from Egypt, were arrested over the shipwreck and were charged with forming a criminal organization with the purpose of illegal migrant trafficking, causing a shipwreck and endangering life, according to Greek judicial authorities.