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Scores of people on a battered fishing boat that later capsized and sank off southern Greece Hellenic Coast Guard/PA Images

New accounts of fatal shipwreck off Greece clash with official version as death toll rises to 81

The new accounts raised further questions about the Greek coastguard’s response.

THE NUMBER OF confirmed victims from one of the worst migrant shipwrecks in the Mediterranean has risen to 81 after three more bodies were found off southern Greece.

This comes as more survivors claimed the battered trawler had been under tow by another vessel before it sank with hundreds aboard.

The new accounts raised further questions about the Greek coastguard’s response from the moment it located the ship until it went down.

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

The coastguard has also been criticised for not trying to rescue the migrants before the vessel sank.

Officials said they refused assistance and insisted on proceeding to Italy, adding that it would have been too dangerous to try to take hundreds of unwilling people off an overcrowded ship.

Ali Sheikhi, a Kurdish man from the war-scarred town of Kobani in north-east 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 80 bodies recovered, but many accounts — backed by Mr 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 about £3,100 each for the trip — a sum later raised to £3,500.

“We said ‘no problem’, so long as the boat was big and in good shape,” he told Rudaw last night, 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 did not 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 — where hundreds, including women and children, are believed to have drowned — but got on to the deck after paying extra money to the smugglers.

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

Sheikhi said the trawler went down after its engine broke 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 today 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. 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.

A Greek navy frigate, with four other vessels and two aircraft, continued to search the area today and recovered two more bodies, raising the confirmed toll to 80.

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

The court gave the suspects and their lawyers time to review the evidence 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.

In a separate incident today, Greece’s coastguard said 68 people had been rescued in the eastern Aegean Sea after the yacht they were on sent a distress signal off the coast of the island of Leros.

Press Association
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