Two Migrant Boats Sink Off Greece; More Than 20 Believed Drowned

ATHENS — More than 20 people are believed to have died after two boats carrying migrants sank in the Aegean Sea amid strong winds, Greek officials said on Thursday, adding that dozens of people had been saved in dramatic rescue operations and that more were feared missing.

The Greek Coast Guard recovered 17 bodies, 16 women and a boy, off the coast of Lesbos in Greece in the worst episode, Nikos Kokkalas, a spokesman, said, adding that strong winds in the area had hampered the rescue effort. At least five people are believed to have died in a separate incident off the island of Kythira.

Ten people, all women, were rescued in the sinking off Lesbos, but up to 14 more were unaccounted for, Mr. Kokkalas said, noting that survivors had referred to 40 people on the vessel, some of whom are believed to have fled and hidden on the island.

“The women who were rescued were in a state of total panic, so we’re still trying to figure out exactly what happened,” Mr. Kokkalas told Greek state television.

An earlier statement said the Coast Guard had been informed by the Greek army about a sunken boat off the eastern shore of Lesbos early Thursday.

Lesbos, in the eastern Aegean, was at the center of Europe’s migration crisis in 2015 and 2016 when hundreds of thousands of people tried crossing to the island in rickety boats often from the neighboring Turkish coast, with hundreds losing their lives.

News of the incident off Lesbos came a few hours after Greek Coast Guard officers responded to a call for help off Kythira, near the country’s southern Peloponnese peninsula, after a sailing vessel carrying nearly 100 people struck rocks. Kythira is on a different route often used by smugglers to skirt Greece and head to Italy.

Greek Coast Guard officers rescued 80 people off Kythira, Mr. Kokkalas said, adding that the rescue operation was continuing in difficult conditions with extremely strong winds. Survivors said that 95 people had been aboard the boat, he said, and that divers had been sent to join the rescue effort for the missing people.

Kythira’s mayor, Stratos Harhalakis, told Greek television that he saw five people drown as he, along with other local officials and volunteers, participated in the rescue operation.

“I saw five people drown with my own eyes,” he said, adding that the strong winds had battered the boat against rocks on the island’s eastern shoreline. “They were beaten against the rocks like octopi,” he said.

Aerial video footage of the Kythira operation released by Greece’s Coast Guard showed migrants huddled on a beach at the foot of a steep cliff with three clinging to its side.

According to Mr. Kokkalas, the survivors from the Kythira wreck were from Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq, while those in the Lesbos wreck are believed to be from African countries.

As rescue efforts continued on both sides of the Aegean, Greek officials blamed their Turkish counterparts for the tragedy amid an escalating dispute between the two neighbors.

“Once again, Turkey’s tolerance for the rackets run by ruthless smugglers have cost human lives,” said the Greek shipping minister. “As long as the Turkish coast guard doesn’t stop their activities, smugglers continue to cram desperate people, with no safety measures, into vessels that cannot endure weather conditions, putting their lives at fatal risk.”

Greece’s migration minister, Notis Mitarachi, who has repeatedly criticized Turkey for failing to honor an agreement it signed in 2016 with the European Union to crack down on human smuggling across the Aegean, issued an “urgent call” to Turkey and the European Union to take action. The Greek authorities have information that other boats are preparing to leave the Turkish coast amid high winds, the minister said.

The deaths came amid a sharp deterioration in relations between the two fractious neighbors, with Greece accusing Turkey of exploiting migrants for political ends. A day before, Mr. Mitarachi posted an undated video that he said showed Turkish Coast Guard officers striking at migrants in a dinghy with poles.

The post followed repeated statements by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey blaming the Greek authorities for the death of migrants in the Aegean, including a recent speech at the United Nations accusing Greece of “crimes against humanity.”

Dismissed by the Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, as preposterous, the claims have also been rebuffed by Greece’s Coast Guard, which says it has rescued 1,500 people in the first eight months of the year in Greek waters. Rights groups claim, however, that hundreds more migrants have been illegally pushed back by the Greek authorities without being permitted to lodge claims for asylum.

The renewed clash over migration between Greece and Turkey comes amid a sharp escalation in aggressive messaging by Mr. Erdogan, who is facing a difficult election next year amid a drastically worsening economy, disputing the sovereignty of islands in the Aegean and even warning of a potential invasion of Greek territory.

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