Greece denies coastguard caused migrant boat disaster with tow attempt

Greece has denied claims that its coastguard caused a fishing boat carrying hundreds of migrants to capsize by attempting to tow it.

The allegation emerged as an outcry grew that not enough had been done to save the boat, which was heading to Italy from the Libyan port of Tobruk.  As many as 500 people, including 100 children reported to have been in the boat’s hold when it sank, are believed to be missing.

The authorities have confirmed 78 deaths and said 104 survivors, mostly from Syria, Egypt and Pakistan, have been brought ashore.  As the UN demanded action to prevent further tragedies on the Mediterranean crossing, the world’s most deadly route for refugees, video footage showed a survivor telling Greece’s former prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, that the coastguard had thrown a rope to people on the boat.

Read more: 100 children may have been on board migrant boat that sank in Mediterranean

“Because they didn’t know how to pull the rope, the vessel started tilting right and left,” the survivor told Tsipras through a translator.

“The coastguard boat was going too fast, but the vessel was already tilting to the left, and that’s how it sank.”

On Friday (June 16) , government spokesman Ilias Siakantaris admitted a rope was used by the coastguard to steady themselves as they approached to see if the people on board wanted help.

But he insisted there was no attempt to tow the boat or tie the coastguard vessel to it.  Greek authorities have also said rescuers could not take action sooner because the people on the boat repeatedly refused assistance.

But legal experts and aid groups said that was no excuse.

And Alarm Phone, a refugee support group that had been in communication with the vessel, said people on board the overcrowded boat, which left Tobruk on June 10, pleaded for help on at least two occasions.  The group said it had alerted the authorities and aid agencies hours before the disaster on Wednesday morning.

The coastguard had been monitoring the vessel for about 15 hours before it sank.  Evangelos Tournas, Greece’s caretaker minister for civil protection, said the coastguard could not act in international waters without a request for assistance, and it could have been dangerous to do so.

But Prof Erik Røsæg of the University of Oslo’s Institute of Private Law said maritime law required authorities to attempt a rescue if the boat was unsafe, whether or not those on board requested it.

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A captain’s refusal of assistance could be overruled if deemed unreasonable, which, he said, it appeared to be in the case.  An air and sea search is continuing near the site of the sinking but no one has been found alive since Wednesday.

The UN agencies for refugees and migrants on Friday called for a thorough investigation and “urgent and decisive action” to prevent further deaths at sea.

Federico Soda, the head of the International Organisation for Migration’s emergency department, said the tragedy once again showed that the approach to migrant crossings in the Mediterranean needed to change.

“Year after year, it continues to be the most dangerous migration route in the world, with the highest fatality rate,” he said.

Nine of the survivors, all men of Egyptian descent, are being held on suspicion of having masterminded the voyage after bringing the boat from Egypt to Libya to collect its passengers.

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