19 drown, dozens missing as migrant boat sinks off Cyprus

Nicosia (AFP) –


At least 19 migrants drowned and up to 30 were missing Wednesday after their boat sank in the Mediterranean off the north of Cyprus, local security forces said.

The boat was carrying 150 people, reportedly Syrians, when it went down off the coast of the breakaway Turkish Cypriot-controlled portion of the island, which is only recognised by Ankara.

More than 100 people were rescued in a joint operation by Turkish Cypriot and Turkish coastguards after the boat sank off the village of Gialousa (Yeni Erenkoy in Turkish) on the panhandle Karpas peninsula.

At least 19 drowned and between 25 and 30 were still missing, the Turkish Cypriot security forces (GKK) said in a statement.

The Turkish coastguard said in a statement that the accident took place 30 kilometres (18 miles) off the shore of northern Cyprus. It said that 103 survivors had been rescued.

One was taken by helicopter to Cyprus in grave medical condition, the GKK added.

The other 102 were taken by boats to the port of Tasucu in Turkey's southern Mersin region where they arrived Wednesday evening, Turkey's state-run Anadolu news agency said.

The 19 bodies of the dead were also taken to Tasucu for autopsies. One of the survivors was a three-year-old child, while a woman who drowned was pregnant, the Hurriyet newspaper said.

Search efforts were underway to recover the missing with commercial vessels also taking part, according to reports.

Turkey's DHA news agency said those on board the vessel were Syrians seeking to go to Europe but this had yet to be confirmed.

- 'Cemetery for refugees' -

Cyprus, some 160 kilometres (100 miles) from Syria's coast, has not seen the massive inflow of migrants experienced by Turkey, Greece and Italy although asylum applications have risen sharply.

According to the International Organisation for Migration, 47,637 migrants and refugees entered Europe by sea up to July with only 47 entering Cyprus.

In the same period, 1,404 people lost their lives in the crossings, mostly those trying to cross from Africa to Italy or Malta.

Cyprus has been divided since 1974 when Turkish troops invaded and occupied the northern third of the island in response to a Greek military junta-sponsored coup.

"The Mediterranean must stop being a cemetery for refugees," Turkish Cypriot president Mustafa Akinci said after the disaster.

Turkey has however been one of the hubs for migrants and refugees fleeing Syria and other trouble spots like Afghanistan and Iraq.

More than a million people, many fleeing the war in Syria, crossed to European Union member Greece from Turkey in 2015 after the onset of the bloc's worst migration crisis since World War II.

Turkey struck a deal with the EU in 2016 in an effort to stem the flow of migrants, and agreed to take back illegal migrants landing on Greek islands in exchange for incentives including financial aid.