Nov 27, 2014 1:55 AM

Ship with 700 migrants safely towed to Greek coast

The Associated Press

IERAPETRA, Greece (AP) More than 700 people, mostly refugees from Syria, began disembarking Thursday on the Greek island of Crete after a harrowing journey on a smuggling ship that broke down in gale-force winds while trying to reach Europe.

The Baris cargo ship lost engine power Tuesday in international waters off Crete, and reached the coastal town of Ierapetra after being slowly towed for 40 hours by a Greek navy frigate.

Authorities said its passengers include many refugees from Syria with a large number of women and children seeking safety and a better life in Europe, and are exhausted but overall in good health.

The coast guard started disembarking women and small children, a small group of whom was given preliminary care and food before being taken to temporary shelter at a basketball arena.

It is one of the largest single crossings of its kind in recent years. Tens of thousands of people from war zones and poverty-stricken African and Middle East countries risk the hazardous journey to Europe every year, paying smuggling gangs to transport them in usually unseaworthy craft ranging from dinghies to aging rust-buckets. Most end up in Italy.

According to Amnesty International, more than 2,500 people have drowned or disappeared trying to make the trip this year about 2 percent of the estimated total of 150,000 to attempt the journey.

The 77-meter (250-foot) cargo ship lost power the same day Pope Francis called on European governments to do a better job of welcoming migrants in speeches to the European Parliament and Council of Europe. Francis said "we cannot allow the Mediterranean to become a vast cemetery!"

Doctors have conducted preliminary health checks and polio vaccinations for children from Syria, where the disease has made a comeback, senior Greek public health official Panayiotis Efstathiou said. Kurds, Afghans and Palestinians were also aboard the ship, which originated in Antalya, Turkey, Efstathiou told The Associated Press.

Dr. Giorgos Xyristakis said the migrants said they had been on the boat for at least four days.

A pregnant woman, who was hemorrhaging, was airlifted to a hospital Wednesday, but there were otherwise no reports of serious health problems aboard the Baris. Rumors of armed men aboard the vessel proved unfounded, the coast guard said.

Efstathiou said the Syrians will receive refugee status and be released, while other passengers deemed to be in Greece illegally will be interned pending deportation.

The mayor of Ierapetra, a town of 16,000 people on a wide, open bay overlooked by jagged hills, said he fully sympathized with the migrants. But stretched local authorities couldn't offer them shelter indefinitely, Theodossis Kaladzakis said.

"Ierapetra can look after these people for a week, but afterward, unfortunately, we simply won't have that ability," he said. "It's not that we don't want to. We just can't."


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