Greek leader blasts critics of rescue effort for sunken migrant vessel

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Survivors of latest tragical shipwreck prepare to board a bus to transfer to Athens at the port of Kalamata, Greece, Friday, June 16, 2023. The round-the-clock effort continued off the coast of southern Greece despite little hope of finding survivors or bodies after none have been found since Wednesday, when 78 bodies were recovered and 104 people were rescued. (John Liakos/InTime News via AP)

ATHENS – Authorities continued to search Saturday for victims and survivors of a trawler that sank off the coast of Greece with as many as 750 migrants on board, as conservative leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis blasted critics of the rescue operation.

Naysayers, Mitsotakis said at a campaign stop in the town of Sparta, should turn their ire against traffickers he called “human scum.” The vessel sank on Wednesday.

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The Greek coast guard announced Saturday that one Greek Navy frigate and four other vessels were operating 47 nautical miles (54 miles; 87 kilometers) southwest of the town of Pylos in Greece’s southwest. Earlier, two helicopters from the navy and coast guard joined the operation, the coast guard said.

The rescue operation is taking place in rough seas, with near gale-force winds, and in some of the Mediterranean Sea's deepest waters. at over 5,000 meters (3 miles).

To date, 104 survivors have been rescued and 78 bodies have been recovered. The trawler carried as many as 750 men, women and children from Syria, Egypt, the Palestinian territories and Pakistan. No survivors or bodies have been found since the day of the accident.

The survivors have been taken to a migrant reception center outside Athens. A few have been visited by relatives residing in other European countries.

The Egyptian embassy in Athens on Saturday shared a list of 43 Egyptian migrants, including minors, who survived the shipwreck. The survivors are all men from Cairo and the Nile Delta provinces of Sharqia and Menofia, the list shows. The embassy said the list was provided by Greek authorities.

Greek authorities continue to face criticism, however, over their failure to act more quickly. They say the migrants insisted they didn't need any help, but non-governmental organizations say they received a number of calls for help.

On Saturday, parts of the Greek rescue vessel captain's testimony were published by Greek media. In it he said the migrants refused help, saying they were going to Italy, and untied a rope loosely tied to the trawler's bow when the coast guard ship had gone closer to inspect.

“It is very unfair for some so-called ‘people in solidarity’ to insinuate that the (Coast Guard) did not do its job. ... These people are out there battling the waves to rescue human lives and protect our borders,” Mitsotakis said.

Mitsotakis, the favorite to win a second four-year term in elections on June 25, attacked the main opposition party Syriza for its own record on migration while in government.

“Those who today appear as the so-called authentic humanitarians are those who allowed detention camps such as Moria to exist. The same who, a few days ago, were condemned by the European Court of Human Rights for the wretched conditions at Moria.”

The notoriously overcrowded migrant camp of Moria, on the island of Lesbos across from the Turkish coast, opened in January 2013 under a three-party coalition government led by New Democracy. It saw its population swell during the migration crisis of 2015. It operated throughout the Syriza administration from 2015-19 and burned down in September 2020. Just before it did, it was estimated that 20,000 people lived in a camp designed to accommodate 3,000.

Mitsotakis also attacked Syriza for “opening the doors to millions of people” in 2015 and defended his own more restrictive policies, vowing to continue them.

“We followed a different migration policy ... fair and strict, of monitoring and guarding our borders. A policy which resulted in illegal crossings dropping 90 percent,” he told the crowd. “This policy has been acknowledged (by Europe) as the right one. Because if we leave Europe's borders to allow in everyone, then the numbers of those wanting to cross the Mediterranean will rise exponentially and so will the chances of tragic shipwrecks.”

Separately on Saturday, a successful rescue operation took place in Italy, where a coast guard vessel from the port of Roccella, in Calabria, rescued 96 migrants on a sailboat more than 100 nautical miles (115 miles; 185 kilometers) from the port.

Turbulent seas made the rescue difficult but with the assistance of a Portuguese coast guard vessel operating for Frontex, the European Union's border agency, and several commercial vessels, the rescue was completed.

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Associated Press writers Samy Magdy in Cairo and Nicole Winfield, in Rome, contributed to this report.