2 dead, 6 missing at sea

Two seamen drowned and another six were still missing late yesterday after a North Korean-flagged freighter sunk before dawn in the stormy eastern Aegean, in an incident which also illustrated the simmering tension between Greece and Turkey – even on matters of rescue at sea. The captain of the 1,600-ton Lady O, which was taking a cargo of steel from Halkida to Istanbul, sent out a distress signal at 1.05 a.m. after the freighter listed abruptly in high seas some 14 miles north of Psara, a small island west of Chios in the eastern Aegean. The area was inside the Athens Flight Information Region, and within the jurisdiction of Greek search-and-rescue authorities. The Merchant Marine Ministry immediately launched a search-and-rescue operation, ordering a helicopter to the area, while instructing all ships in the vicinity to head in the direction of the Lady O – which was carrying a crew of 10 Egyptian and Lebanese nationals, and one Egyptian passenger. But gale-force winds prevented the Puma helicopter from reaching its objective until 3.30 a.m., an hour and 20 minutes after the freighter had foundered. By then, most of the seamen were in life rafts. At 3.55 a.m., a freighter pulled one man off a life raft, while half an hour later the helicopter crew – flying in winds that reached 10 on the Beaufort scale – rescued another sailor. A third was airlifted to safety at 6 a.m. Two corpses were also recovered. Meanwhile, the captain of a Turkish naval corvette requested to take control of the operation, but was refused as the ministry judged it had enough vessels in the area. Just after 7 a.m., a Turkish helicopter approached, without seeking permission to enter the Athens FIR, which prompted Greece to send two F-16 fighter jets to identify the aircraft. Turkey also sent a couple of F-16s to the area, but all four fighters dispersed without incident. A second Turkish helicopter which took part in the rescue operation pulled a seaman out of the sea but failed to secure the man, who fell into the water again and was lost from sight, according to the Greek Merchant Marine Ministry. Turkish forces had been conducting a search-and-rescue exercise in the area. Search-and-rescue jurisdiction in the Aegean is a sensitive issue. The seeds of the 1996 Imia confrontation, in which Greece and Turkey came very close to war over ownership of the two uninhabited islets, were sown when the captain of a Turkish vessel that ran aground on one of the islets refused to be assisted by Greek authorities.