Coast guard rejects blame for migrant sea tragedy

The coast guard on Wednesday rebuffed reports that one of its vessels had been towing a boat full of would-be immigrants back to Turkey when a number of the passengers fell into the sea, resulting in several drownings, following criticism from international bodies over the incident.

The bodies of a woman and a child aged around 5 were found near the Turkish coast early Wednesday, two days after their smuggling boat was spotted close to the Greek islet of Farmakonisi. Another nine migrants, all women and children, were missing last night while 16 others had been rescued.

In a statement Wednesday, the Hellenic Coast Guard said it had been towing the vessel toward Farmakonisi, not toward the Turkish coast, when some of the migrants fell overboard.

The statement came in the wake of criticism by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) which quoted survivors as saying that several migrants fell off the boat as it was being towed, at high speed, toward the Turkish coast. The UNHCR called for an inquiry into the circumstances of the tragedy.

Meanwhile the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, Nils Muiznieks, said he was “shocked and distressed” and called on Greek authorities to “put an end to the illegal practice of collective expulsions and effectively investigate all such cases.”