61 migrants rescued by freighter off Malta reach Crete

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — A group of 61 migrants picked up by a cargo ship from a crippled fishing boat in the central Mediterranean have safely reached the island of Crete hours after a severely ill child on the freighter died while being airlifted to Greece, Greek authorities said Wednesday.

The Syrian, Lebanese and Palestinian migrants had reportedly been stranded for days without provisions on a leaking fishing boat near Malta, after trying to sail from Lebanon to Italy about 10 days ago.

“We had tried pressing the Maltese, Italian, and Greek authorities for days to get them to authorize a ship in the vicinity of the migrants to rescue them,” Moroccan-Italian activist Nawal Soufy told the Associated Press. Soufy had been in contact with the migrants on board and rescue freighter, BBC Pearl, via satellite phone.

“We’re now waiting for the Greek authorities to respond to our queries about the migrants’ current situation.”

On Tuesday, a Greek navy helicopter had airlifted a 4-year-old girl with health problems and her mother off the BBC Pearl, but the child was pronounced dead on arrival at a hospital on Crete.

The coast guard said the remaining 33 men, 7 women and 21 children disembarked from the Antigua and Barbuda-flagged ship early Wednesday at the port of Kali Limenes on southern Crete.

Two were taken to hospital with non life-threatening health issues, while the rest were temporarily put up in a sports hall in the town of Moires.

Greek authorities said it was not immediately clear when they were picked up by the freighter, where they had set off from and where they had been heading.

The coast guard said in a statement late Tuesday that the BBC Pearl had rescued them inside Malta’s search and rescue area. It said Greece received a request around midday Tuesday from Maltese authorities, who had been contacted by the cargo ship’s captain, to airlift the mother and child to safety.

The ship then altered course towards Crete to facilitate the airlift, the coast guard statement said.

The migrants on board had told their relatives and volunteer groups by satellite phone earlier that they have been without food, water, and baby formula for days.

A relative of one of the passengers, speaking on condition of anonymity for security reasons, claimed the migrants were lost at sea, as their smuggler did not provide them with a navigation system, compass, or maps on the leaking, overcrowded boat.

The migrants also claimed that three children died due to dehydration before the group was rescued.

Once a country that received refugees, Lebanon has become a launching pad for dangerous migration by sea to Europe, as it struggles with an economic crisis over the past three years that has pulled three-quarters of its population into poverty.

There has been an increase in migrants seeking to travel on unsafe boats from troubled Lebanon to Italy, and Greek authorities have performed several rescues in recent weeks.

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Chehayeb reported from Beirut, Lebanon.

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Follow AP’s global migration coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/migration

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