33 migrants drown as boat hits rocks, sinks off Turkey coast

ANKARA, Turkey -- A boat smuggling migrants to Greece slammed into rocks off the Turkish coast Saturday and capsized, killing at least 33 people including five children, as the choppy Aegean Sea continued to claim asylum-seekers' lives this month at an appalling pace, officials said.

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Coast guard officials said they rescued 75 people from the 17-meter (56-foot) vessel but government officials said they suspected more were trapped inside the sunken vessel and the death toll was likely to rise. Video footage on the Turkish shoreline showed police walking among bodies of several dead as they washed ashore, among them a toddler lying on his back in navy blue clothing.

The International Organization for Migration says drowning deaths are running at four times the rate of 2015, when many thousands daily sought to enter the European Union via Turkey by reaching one of more than a dozen offshore Greek islands, particularly nearby Lesbos.

Saturday's deaths take the drowning total for January above 250, whereas the agency recorded 805 drowning deaths on Turkey-Greece smuggling routes throughout 2015.

A Turkish government official said he expects rescue workers to find more dead who were trapped inside the wreckage of the boat, which sank shortly after departing from the Aegean resort of Ayvacik, barely 8 kilometres (5 miles) north of the Lesbos coastline.

Saim Eskioglu, deputy governor for the coastal Canakkale province that includes Ayvacik, said the boat "hit rocks soon after it left the coast and, unfortunately, it sank."

"We believe there are more dead bodies inside the boat," he told CNN-Turk television.

Ayvacik's mayor, Mehmet Unal Sahin, said most of the migrants were Syrians. The state-run Anadolu Agency said the boat also bore natives of Afghanistan and Myanmar.

In a statement, the Turkish coast guard said it dispatched three boats, a team of divers and a helicopter after receiving calls for help. The coast guard said its rescue teams recovered 33 bodies and were continuing to search.

A private Turkish news agency, Dogan, said police arrested a Turkish man suspected of being the smuggler who organized Saturday's disastrous sea crossing.

Journalists at the scene said weather conditions Saturday on the Turkish coast were relatively mild, with light winds and temperatures around 12 degrees Celsius (54 Fahrenheit).

Joel Millman, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration, said the rate of deaths on Turkey-Greece human trafficking routes was "increasing at an alarming rate."

Millman, speaking before Saturday's tragedy, said the rate of fatalities was running exceptionally high versus 2015. He said 55,000 had crossed by sea into Greece this month, a "very small number" versus the monthly flow in 2015.

Turkey, which is hosting an estimated 2.5 million refugees from Syria, in November agreed to fight smuggling networks and stem the flow of migrants into Europe. In return, the European Union pledged 3 billion euros ($3.25 billion) to help improve the refugees' conditions.

The country says it has started rejecting Syrians who arrive without valid visas via third countries. It also has started to grant work permits to Syrians as an incentive for them to stay put in Turkey.


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