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HRW: Masked gunmen attacking migrant boats heading to Greece

Human Rights Watch has documented masked, armed men disabling boats carrying migrants in the Aegean Sea and pushing them back to Turkish waters. The rights group called for an investigation.

There have been at least eight recent incidents of armed men wearing black uniforms and balaclavas disabling migrant vessels making

the dangerous sea crossing from Turkey to Greece,

Human Rights Watch said in a report on Monday based on migrant and observer accounts.

The migrants described both unmarked and Greek-flagged boats taking or damaging their engines, ramming vessels and puncturing inflatable dinghies before pulling the migrants back to Turkish waters.

In several instances the migrants were beaten and threatened before their boats were "abandoned without any certainty that the occupants were safe," Human Rights Watch said.

Ali, a 17-year-old migrant from Afghanistan, told Human Rights Watch that a speedboat carrying five masked men with handguns rammed the migrants' rubber boat as they headed towards

the Greek island of Lesbos.

“At first when they approached, we thought they had come to help us,” Ali said. “But by the way they acted, we realized they hadn't come to help. They were so aggressive. They didn't come on board our boat, but they took our boat's engine and then sped away.”

In several instances, migrants reported military-style Zodiac boats being lowered from larger Greek-flagged ships. Witness accounts also suggest the unknown men did not speak Turkish.

"Disabling boats in the Aegean makes an already dangerous journey even more likely to result in death," said Eva Cosse, a Greece specialist at Human Rights Watch.

"These criminal actions require an urgent response from the Greek authorities," she said, adding that the potential involvement of the the Greek Coast Guard should also be investigated.

The latest instances occurred on October 7 and 9, but similar allegations had been documented earlier this summer. Human Rights Watch also said that there were allegations Greek border guards at the Evros land border with Turkey had engaged in "collective expulsions and pushbacks of migrants and asylum seekers" despite the Greek government's condemnation of the practice.

Greece is at the forefront of the migrant crisis hitting Europe,

with over a half a million migrants and asylum seekers having arrived in the country on their way to richer countries in the EU. At least 3,135 people have died while making the Mediterranean crossing this year, according to UNHCR.

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