More than 700 migrants aboard a stricken smuggling ship attempting to reach Europe have begun disembarking on the Greek island of Crete. It is one of the largest refugee boats to make the crossing in recent months.
The migrants, believed to be mainly from Syria, began disembarking Thursday at the coastal town of Ierapetra, after the vessel they had been traveling on lost power southeast of Crete.
The 77-meter (250-foot) Baris cargo ship sent out a distress signal when it broke down early Tuesday in international waters about 30 nautical miles (56 kilometres) from the Mediterranean island. It was intercepted by a Greek navy frigate and had to be towed by a cable for about 40 hours through rough waves and gale-force winds until it reached Ierapetra's wide bay.
Authorities said the vessel's passengers - who include around 200 women and children - were exhausted but overall in good health. A pregnant woman who was hemorrhaging was airlifted to a hospital in Britain on Wednesday.
The migrants are being given food and preliminary medical checks before being escorted into a makeshift reception center set up in an indoor basketball stadium. Doctor Giorgos Xyristakis, who is involved in carrying out the health checks, told news agency Associated Press the migrants said they had been on the boat for at least four days.
Besides Syrians, there were also Palestinians, Kurds, Iranians and Afghans aboard the ship.
The mayor of Ierapetra, a town of 20,000 people, said the municipality didn't have the resources to give the refugees shelter indefinitely.
"Ierapetra can look after these people for a week, but afterward, unfortunately, we simply won't have that ability," Theodossis Kaladzakis said. "It's not that we don't want to. We just can't."
Each year, tens of thousands of people from war-torn countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East risk the hazardous journey, often in unseaworthy boats, in the hope of finding a better life in Europe. Many of them end up in southern European countries like Italy and Greece.
According to human rights organization Amnesty International, more than 2,500 people - out of the 150,000 who have attempted the journey so far this year - have drowned or disappeared at sea.
nm/tj (Reuters, AP, AFP)