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

ANKARA, Turkey -- He looks peacefully asleep. But the boy, lying on his back on a rocky Turkish beach, is dead -- and a soul-searing reminder that Europe's migrant crisis keeps destroying lives and families by the day.

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The unidentified boy was among at least 35 people who drowned Saturday when their boat struck rocks and capsized at dawn as they attempted the deceptively short crossing from the Turkish coast to the Greek island of Lesbos barely 5 miles (8 kilometres) away. More than 250 have drowned already this month trying to reach one of Greece's offshore islands, entry point to the European Union and its uncertain promise of refuge from war and poverty.

The Turkish coast guard said three ships, a helicopter and team of divers were searching the partially submerged craft and surrounding seas for more bodies as police on shore placed bodies, among them at least five children, in black bags. Journalists at the scene tried to interview some of the 75 survivors, but police took them away in buses, some bound for a local hospital to be treated for hypothermia and other injuries, others into police custody for questioning.

The images of the boy and others on the beach Saturday recalled the photo of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi lying face down on a Turkish beach last year. His story put an intimate face on the Syrian refugee crisis for people across the world.

A Turkish government official said he expects rescue workers to find more dead who were trapped inside the wreckage of the 17-meter (56-foot) boat, which sank shortly after departing from the shore near the Aegean resort of Ayvacik. Saim Eskioglu, deputy governor for the coastal Canakkale province that includes Ayvacik, said the boat "hit rocks soon after it left the coast."

The state-run Anadolu Agency said 39 died. Eskioglu said he suspected that was the total, but 35 bodies had been recovered while the bodies of more victims remained inaccessible inside the sunken vessel.

"There are either three or four more bodies inside the boat, which had two decks. The divers are trying to reach them," Eskioglu told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.

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

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

Weather conditions did not appear to be a significant factor in the sinking. 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).

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, chiefly Lesbos.

The agency recorded 805 drowning deaths of migrants on Turkey-Greece sea routes throughout 2015, and a further 218 this month alone excluding the ultimate total of Saturday's tragedy.

Joel Millman, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration, said the death toll was "increasing at an alarming rate." He said it was all the more surprising, given the reality that fewer people are attempting the crossing during winter.

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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