ATHENS, Greece (AP) — A small cargo ship carrying about 400 migrants that suffered engine problems in the eastern Mediterranean Sea off the Greek island of Crete will be towed to a safe anchorage in Greece, the Greek coast guard said Friday.
But by late Friday night, no port had been designated for the ship and there were signs the incident could turn into a diplomatic tussle with neighboring Turkey, Greece’s regional rival from where the ship departed.
A coast guard statement said the Turkish-flagged freighter was located by a Greek search-and-rescue vessel east of Crete, following a tip that it needed assistance.
There was no indication that anybody on it was in ill health, although it was unclear how long it had been at sea and what its food and water situation was. The nationalities of the passengers and crew were unknown.
“Right now, the important thing is to get the ship to a safe anchorage,” an official with knowledge of the operation initially told The Associated Press. The official, who spoke on customary condition of anonymity, said later the vessel remained east of Crete.
The official said a formal request was to be made to Turkey to take back the ship and its passengers, who meanwhile were expected to be temporarily sheltered in a Greek port. He said it had left from Turkey, and therefore under a 2016 migrant agreement between Ankara and the European Union, Turkey should take it back.
A photograph posted by the coast guard showed scores of people, mostly men, standing in groups on the deck of a small, battered-looking freighter.
The coast guard said the ship had been heading for Italy. Using a large vessel capable of carrying several hundred people would mark a shift in smugglers’ tactics.
The last time a vessel carrying several hundred migrants was located in Greece was in 2014, again off Crete. The 77-meter (250-foot) Baris cargo ship ran into trouble in international waters with nearly 600 people on board and was towed by a Greek naval frigate to the Cretan port of Ierapetra. The passengers, mostly Syrians, told officials they had paid smugglers up to $6,000 apiece for a passage from Turkey to Italy.
Crammed into flimsy dinghies, almost 1 million people fleeing conflict and poverty in the Middle East, Asia and Africa crossed from the Turkish coast to the Greek islands in 2015. The 2016 EU-Turkey agreement was meant to prevent that from happening again.
Follow AP’s global migration coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/migration