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Greek migrant boat wreck may be Mediterranean’s ‘worst ever tragedy’ with hundreds still missing

The sinking of a packed migrant boat off the coast of Greece may be “the worst tragedy ever” in the Mediterranean sea, according to the EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson./Greece Coast Guard

(CNN) — The sinking of a packed migrant boat off the coast of Greece may be “the worst tragedy ever” in the Mediterranean sea, according to the EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson.

Dozens of people were killed and hundreds more left missing when the boat, traveling from the coastal city of Tobruk in Libya to Italy, capsized off the coast of Greece earlier this week. The true toll of the disaster is yet to become clear.

“We don’t have all information yet on what has happened but it seems like this is the worst ever tragedy we’ve seen in the Mediterranean,” she told a press conference in Brussels on Friday.

The tragedy has shone a spotlight on the EU refugee crisis in which every year, tens of thousands of migrants fleeing war, persecution, climate change and poverty risk treacherous routes to Europe.

Johansson condemned the role of “smugglers” who put people on the boats. “They are not sending them to Europe, they are sending them to death. This is what they’re doing and it’s absolutely necessary to prevent it,” she said.

“Unfortunately, we have seen this coming because since the start of the year, there was a new modus operandi with these fishing boats leaving from the eastern part of Libya… and we’ve seen an increase of 600% of these departures this year,” she added, stressing the need to find “different ways to fight the smugglers and save lives.”

“When it comes to fighting the smugglers, we can’t rely on only one way to do that. We have to use intelligence – we have to use common police investigations together with countries of origin, with countries of transit, with countries of departure,” she said.

Other global bodies such as the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) called for “urgent and decisive action” to prevent further deaths in the Mediterranean and emphasized “the duty to rescue people in distress at sea without delay.”

Denial from authorities

Greek authorities have faced criticism for how the disaster was handled.

On Friday, they denied claims that the boat had capsized after the coast guard attempted to tow it to shore.

Authorities had initially said the coast guard kept its distance but their assistance “had been declined” after they threw a rope to the vessel to “stabilize and check if it needed help.”

Tarek Aldroobi, who had three relatives on board, told CNN that they had seen Greek authorities towing the vessel with ropes, but says they were tied in the “wrong places” – which caused it to capsize.

“Their boat was in a good condition and the Greek navy tried towing them to the beach but the ropes were tied in the wrong places,” Aldroobi said. “When the Greek navy tried pulling them it caused the boat to capsize.”

Speaking to Greek national broadcaster ERT, government spokesperson Ilias Siakanderis said the coast guard arrived two hours before the boat capsized after its engine broke down and there had been “no connection” between the two.

“The engine broke down at 1:40 a.m. and at 2:00 a.m. it sank – therefore there can be no connection between (the coast guard approaching the boat and the time of its sinking),” he told ERT.

The Hellenic coast guard also defended its response.

“When the boat capsized, we were not even next to boat. How could we be towing it?” Nikos Alexiou, a spokesman for the coast guard told CNN.

Alexiou said their patrol boat only used a small rope to stabilize itself while it was close to the migrant boat and they were unable to tug the fishing boat.

“Our patrol boat could not tow the fishing boat,” he said.

According to Alexiou the coast guard had been observing the boat at close but not mooring distance, when they started approaching following an alert that the migrant boat’s engine had failed.

“Regretfully there was movement of people, a shift in weight probably caused by panic and the boat capsized. As soon as we got there, we started our rescue operation to collect those who were in the water,” he explained.

The NGO Alarm Phone meanwhile alleged that the coast guard was aware that the boat was in distress hours before it capsized.

The coast guard this week said it had repeatedly asked the boat if it needed assistance and were told it did not. Authorities also previously said they could not intervene with the boat without being asked for assistance, as the boat was in international waters.