On Friday, the Coast Guard said a small cargo ship carrying some 400 migrants and having engine problems in the eastern Mediterranean off Crete is heading for a safe anchorage.
A Turkish-flagged cargo ship was sighted by a Greek search and rescue vessel east of Crete in a statement from the Coast Guard. Earlier, the authorities were informed that the floating craft was damaged and needed help.
There was no direct indication that anyone on board was ill. The nationality of passengers and crew members is unknown.
“The important thing now is to anchor the ship safely,” an official familiar with the operation told The Associated Press. The official spoke on the usual terms of anonymity.
A photograph posted by the Coast Guard on its website showed a large number of people, mostly men, standing in groups on the deck of a small, battered freighter with “Vatha” written on the bow.
In a statement from the Coast Guard, the vessel departed from Turkey. His original destination was not clear, but he was likely heading for Italy, where smugglers are often sent migrants – especially after Greece has tightened border security and maritime patrols over the past 18 months.
Usually they use yachts, and a large vessel capable of carrying several hundred people means a change in the tactics of smugglers.
The Coast Guard said that due to the large number of people on the ship, it was “one of the largest search and rescue operations conducted in the eastern Mediterranean.
In agreement with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and with the approval of Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias, the head of the Greek Coast Guard sent Ankara a request for the return of migrants in accordance with the European convention he signed.
There was also contact with Frontex and Brussels, and it became clear that Greece – on a commitment basis – would accept migrants in a safe place, but there was a request for a written protest to the competent Turkish services and a request to respect the provisions by taking them back.
The last time the ship, which carried several hundred migrants, was in Greece at the end of 2014, again off the coast of Crete. 77m cargo ship Baris with almost 700 people on board, it ran into trouble in international waters and was towed by a Greek naval frigate to the Cretan port of Ierapetra.
The passengers, mostly Syrians, told authorities that they paid the smugglers between $ 2,000 and $ 6,000 to travel from Turkey to Italy on an aging rusty bucket.
Around the same time, a couple of other cargo ships were discovered heading for Italy. But soon thereafter, the use of ships of this size diminished, as by then smugglers were offering a cheaper and faster – albeit by no means safer – route to the European Union.
On Tuesday, four migrants, three of them children, drowned after the boat on which they and 23 others tried to cross from Turkey to Greece sank off the island of Chios. [AP, Reuters]