Survivors of a boat disaster that claimed the lives of probably hundreds of migrants near Greece have testified about human smugglers in North Africa. They piled them into a rickety fishing boat. And they talked about the hell they lived on board without food or water.
Some also said that the actions of the Greek coast guard hastened the tragic end. They told judicial authorities of a failed attempt to tow an overloaded fishing boat, which resulted in it capsizing in the early hours of June 14.
According to the evidence seen by Reuters, there was talk of a catastrophic attempt by the Coast Guard to tow the boat in six out of nine testimonies of survivors that they provided to Greek judicial officials investigating the causes of the tragedy.
One Syrian survivor said he and other migrants on the boat “Adriana”, which broke down on its way to Italy, shouted “Stop!” After the Greek coast guard boat tied a rope to the migrant boat and began towing it with increasing speed. He added that the migrants’ boat began to tilt left and right, and then capsized.
For their part, three other witnesses said they did not know why the boat capsized. The statements of the six witnesses contradict public statements by the Greek coast guard and government, who denied any attempt to tow the boat and said that it capsized when the coast guard was about 70 meters away from it.
The nine survivors testified on 17 and 18 June before the investigators who conducted a preliminary investigation into the disaster. A group of suspected people smugglers were detained on 15 June on charges including manslaughter, smuggling migrants and causing a boat to sink, pending a wider investigation that could lead to trial. The suspects deny any wrongdoing.
In another interview conducted by “Reuters” separately, two other survivors recounted the towing incident and requested that their names not be published for fear of reprisals from the Greek authorities. One of them, who identified himself as Mohammed, described the terrifying moment when the boat capsized. He said this happened when the coast guard started towing the boat.
“They pulled us fast and the boat capsized. It swayed left and right and capsized. People started falling on top of each other. They were on top of each other, screaming, drowning each other. It happened at night and there were waves. It was terrifying.”
In response to local media reports, which quoted some survivors as saying the fishing boat had been towed, a Coast Guard spokesperson publicly denied on June 15 that the Coast Guard boat had ever attached a rope to the migrants’ boat.
A day later, the Coast Guard amended his statements and said that his boat had tied a rope to the migrants’ boat to help them get closer so that they could communicate with him. He denied that he later tried to tow the boat, saying he kept his distance.
In a related context, Nikos Spanos, a retired admiral in the Greek Coast Guard, told Reuters that it was unlikely that the Coast Guard boat had tried to take such a dangerous step as towing the stricken fishing boat.
“The (coast guard’s) goal was to communicate better to help the boat and assess the situation. That’s my understanding. Because if they tried to tow it or something else, it would have been very risky and that wouldn’t have been the right way,” he added.
“Don’t help us…we’re going to Italy.”
And when the boat capsized, “Adriana” and sank 47 miles to the southwest From Pylos, in international waters that fall under the jurisdiction of Greece’s search and rescue authority, were carrying between 400 and 750 migrants, mostly from Syria, Egypt and Pakistan, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
A total of 104 survivors have been found, but rescuers said it was unlikely to find others, dead or alive, in one of the deepest parts of the Mediterranean.
Photo posted by the Greek Coast Guard
According to the evidence, the log of the Coast Guard boat was provided to the judicial authorities and contains details of two instances, two hours apart, when the Coast Guard approached the “Adriana”.
The log states that at 11:40 p.m. on June 13, the Coast Guard approached the fishing boat, whose engine had failed, and attached a rope to the boat in order to approach it and talk to those on board to assess the situation and whether they needed help.
People on board shouted “don’t help us,” “we’re going to Italy,” and “untie,” according to the log, which said the engine was restarted and the boat headed west.
Then, at 1:40 a.m., the Coast Guard Operations Center instructed his boat to return to the fishing boat to check on its condition after it stopped.
The record stated that the Coast Guard boat approached the fishing boat at a distance of approximately 70 meters and heard a lot of screams. And in less than seven minutes it capsized.
An additional $55 to park on the boat deck
Survivors reported that the boat “Adriana” had set off from a beach in or near the Libyan city of Tobruk on or about 10 June. Mohammed, one of the survivors, said that the people smugglers took the passengers’ luggage and discarded the drinking water bottles before making them onto the boat, to make room for more people.
According to the evidence, a Syrian migrant told the judicial authorities that the space allotted to each person was only 40 centimeters.
All 11 survivors said they paid between $4,500 and $6,000 for the journey, and that smugglers told them they would reach Italy within three days. Three survivors told the authorities they had paid an extra 50 to 200 euros ($55 to $220) to stand on the boat deck, which was considered safer.
They were among thousands trying to reach southern Europe this year on boats from North Africa. According to data from the European Agency for Border and Coast Guard “Frontex”, more than 50,000 cases of “irregular border crossing” of the central Mediterranean were monitored, most of them departing from Tunisia and Libya, in the first five months of 2023, an increase of 160% over last year.
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