A Greek frigate has towed a disabled cargo ship packed with 700 migrants to safety just off the island of Crete on Thursday, in one of the biggest sea rescues mounted by the Mediterranean nation, coastguard officials said.
The Kiribati-flagged MV Baris issued a distress call on Tuesday after developing engine problems 30 nautical miles (45 kilometers) southeast of Crete. A Greek frigate dispatched to the scene spent over 24 hours fighting off strong winds and waves to tow the ship close to the southeastern port of Ierapetra, where boats had begun transferring migrants to the town.
“The coast guard has been fighting waves since yesterday in a huge rescue operation for 700 souls in very tough conditions,” Shipping Minister Miltiadis Varvitsiotis told parliament.
Doctors earlier boarded the ship to examine the migrants, who included about 200 women and children. Most of the migrants were believed to be from Afghanistan and Syria.
Greece is a popular entry point into Europe for thousands of undocumented migrants from Asia and Africa.
In September Athens warned that it was slipping into a “danger zone” without adequate funds or resources to handle a fast-growing wave of refugees from war-torn nations like Syria and Iraq.
Earlier this week, Pope Francis told Europe's leaders to do more to help thousands of migrants risking their lives trying to get into the continent, saying they had to stop the Mediterranean becoming “a vast cemetery.”