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As death toll rises to 81, new accounts clash with official version of migrant disaster off Greece

Zohaib Shamraiz holds up a photograph of his uncle missing uncle, Nadeem Muhamm, outside a migrant camp in Malakasa north of Athens, on Monday, June 19, 2023.
Zohaib Shamraiz holds up a photograph of his uncle missing uncle, Nadeem Muhamm, outside a migrant camp in Malakasa north of Athens, on Monday, June 19, 2023. Copyright Petros Giannakouris/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved
Copyright Petros Giannakouris/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved
By Euronews with AP
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The number of confirmed victims from one of the worst migrant shipwrecks in the Mediterranean rose to 81 Monday after three more bodies were found off southern Greece.

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New accounts from survivors have raised further questions about the Greek coast guard's response from the moment it located the ship until it went down. 

Officials in Athens have insisted the metal fishing boat carrying migrants from Libya to Italy was at no point under tow, and only had a line briefly attached to it hours before it capsized and foundered.

The coast guard has also been widely criticised for not trying to rescue the migrants before their vessel sank. 

Petros Giannakouris/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved
A man waits at the turnstiles and speaks with survivors of a deadly migrant boat sinking at a migrant camp in Malakasa north of Athens, on Monday, June 19, 2023.Petros Giannakouris/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved

It argued that they refused any assistance and insisted on proceeding to Italy, adding that it would have been too dangerous to try and evacuate hundreds of unwilling people off an overcrowded ship. The full details of the incident remain unclear.

Ali Sheikhi, a Kurdish man from the war-scarred town of Kobani in northeast Syria, had hoped the vessel would take him to a better life in Europe. Then, he would eventually bring over his wife and three young sons.

Instead, the ship sank in international waters two hours after midnight on 14 June. Only 104 survivors have been found so far, and 81 bodies recovered. But many accounts - backed by Sheikhi - say up to 750 people were on board.

He told Kurdish TV Rudaw that he and other relatives from Kobani, including a younger brother who died, had agreed to pay smugglers $4,000 each for the trip - a sum later raised to $4,500 (US).

“We said ‘no problem,’ so long as the boat was big and in good shape,” he told Rudaw late Sunday, speaking by phone from a closed reception centre near Athens where survivors have been moved.

“They told us we should not bring any food or anything else because it is all available on the boat.”

The smugglers didn't let anyone bring lifejackets, and threw whatever food the passengers had into the sea, he added, echoing accounts from other survivors.

Sheikhi said he and his companions were directed to the ship's hold - a deathtrap where hundreds, including women and children, are believed to have drowned - but got onto the deck after paying extra money to the smugglers.

By the time the ship sank, they had been five days at sea. Water ran out after a day and a half, and some passengers resorted to drinking seawater.

Petros Giannakouris/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved
A man cries after speaking with survivors of a deadly migrant boat sinking at a migrant camp in Malakasa north of Athens, on Monday, June 19, 2023.Petros Giannakouris/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved

Crucially, Sheikhi said the trawler went down after its engine broke down and another vessel tried to tow it.

“In the pulling, (the trawler) sank,” he said. “We don’t know who it belonged to.”

Similar claims have been made by other survivors in accounts posted on social media, and other survivors were anonymously quoted in Syrian media Monday saying the ship was being towed.

“One side went up and the people fell from there into the sea,” Sheikhi told Rudaw.

“The people started to scream” in the dark. “Every person tried to hold on to the other and pull him under so he stayed above water. I thought then no one will survive.”

Greek authorities have insisted the ship wobbled violently before sinking after an abrupt shift in position by many of its passengers.

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A Greek navy frigate, with four other vessels and two aircraft, continued to search the area Monday and recovered three more bodies - the first found since Wednesday - that raised the confirmed toll to 81.

In the southern port of Kalamata, where survivors were initially taken, a court postponed for Tuesday a hearing for nine Egyptian alleged crew members of the trawler. The men face multiple charges including negligent manslaughter and people smuggling.

The court gave the suspects and their lawyers time to review the testimonies of nine Syrian and Pakistani survivors, provided over the weekend.

Meanwhile, passengers' relatives who flew in from several European countries arrived at the migrant centre in Malakasa, north of Athens, trying to track down family members known to have been on the boat. 

About 20 people were allowed into a restricted area next to the facility: they spoke to relatives through the fence, passing them documents, snacks and soft drinks.

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The other survivors, all men and youths, were from Egypt, Syria and the Palestinian territories.

Duccio Staderini, a senior official for Greece at the Doctors Without Frontiers (MSF) international charity, said smuggling networks were growing stronger due to migration “bottlenecks” resulting from Europe's tight border policies.

“The smugglers, these criminal networks are emerging because of these bottlenecks,” he told The AP after visiting survivors in Malakasa. 

“And it’s getting worse and worse, and uglier and uglier.”

In a separate incident Monday, Greece's coast guard said 68 people were rescued in the eastern Aegean Sea after the sailboat they were on sent a distress signal off the coast of the island of Leros.

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