Residents of a Greek island pulled shipwrecked migrants to safety up steep cliffs in dramatic rescues after two boats sank in Greek waters, leaving at least 17 people dead and dozens still missing.
The coast guard said 16 of the bodies were of young African women while one was a young man. They were all recovered near the eastern island of Lesbos after a dinghy carrying about 40 people sank. Ten women were rescued, while 13 other migrants were believed to be missing, coast guard officials said.
“The women who were rescued were in a full state of panic so we are still trying to work out what happened,” coast guard spokesman Nikos Kokkalas told state television. “The women were all from African countries, aged 20 upward. ... There is a search on land as well as at sea and we hope that survivors made it to land.”
The second rescue effort was launched several hundred kilometers (miles) to the west, off the island of Kythira, where a sailboat struck rocks and sank. Kokkalas said 80 people had been rescued while a search continued for as many as 15 still believed to be missing, The Associated Press said.
With winds in the area reaching 70 kph (45 mph), Fire Service rescuers and local volunteers on Kythira lowered ropes to help migrants climb up cliffs on the seafront.
Survivors clinging to ropes were pulled to safety up steep cliffs as others were buffeted by waves as they waited their turn on tiny areas of rock at the bottom.
“All the residents here went down to the harbor to try and help,” Martha Stathaki, a local resident told The Associated Press.
“We could see the boat smashing against the rocks and people climbing up those rocks to try and save themselves. It was an unbelievable sight.”
Kythira is some 400 kilometers (250 miles) west of Turkey and on a route often used by smugglers to bypass Greece and head directly to Italy.
The deaths occurred amid a heated spat between Greece and Turkey over the safety of migrants at sea with Athens accusing its neighbor of failing to stop smugglers active on its shoreline and even using migrants to apply political pressure on the European Union.
“Once again, Turkey’s tolerance of gangs of ruthless traffickers has cost human lives,” Greek Shipping Minister Yannis Plakiotakis said.
“As long as the Turkish coastguard does not prevent their activities, the traffickers cram unfortunate people, without safety measures, into boats that cannot withstand the weather conditions, putting their lives in mortal danger.”
Turkey denies the allegations and has publicly accused Greece of carrying out reckless summary deportations, known as pushbacks.
Speaking at the United Nations General Assembly last month, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, accused Greece of “turning the Aegean Sea into a graveyard” and held up photographs of dead migrant children.
Most migrants reaching Greece travel from nearby Turkey, but smugglers have changed routes in recent months in an effort to avoid heavily patrolled waters around Greek islands near the Turkish coastline.