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Dramatic rescues after two migrant boats sink off Greece

At least 15 people have died after two boats carrying migrants sank in Greek waters, and rescuers are looking for dozens still missing (Ippolytos Prekas/kythera.new/AP)
At least 15 people have died after two boats carrying migrants sank in Greek waters, and rescuers are looking for dozens still missing (Ippolytos Prekas/kythera.new/AP)

Residents of a Greek island pulled shipwrecked migrants to safety up steep cliffs in dramatic rescues after two boats sank, leaving at least 21 people dead and many others still missing.

The coast guard said 16 bodies of young African women and one young man had been recovered overnight near the eastern island of Lesbos after a dinghy carrying about 40 people sank.

Ten women were rescued, while 13 other migrants were believed to be missing, officials said.

Greece Migrants Missing
Authorities and local residents take part in a large-scale rescue operation on the island of Kythira (Ippolytos Prekas/kythera.news/AP)

“The women who were rescued were in a full state of panic so we are still trying to work out what happened,” coast guard spokesman Nikos Kokkalas told state television.

“The women were all from African countries, aged 20 upward.

“There is a search on land as well as at sea and we hope that survivors made it to land.”

The second rescue effort was launched several hundred miles to the west, off the island of Kythira, where a boat struck rocks and sank.

Mr Kokkalas said 80 people had been rescued while a search was continuing for as many as 15 still believed to be missing.

With winds in the area reaching 45mph (70kph), fire service rescuers and local volunteers on Kythira lowered ropes to help migrants climb up cliffs on the seafront.

Survivors clinging to ropes were pulled to safety up steep cliffs as others were buffeted by waves as they waited their turn on tiny areas of rock at the bottom.

Greece Migrants Missing
Migrants wait at the bottom of a cliff as waves hit them during a large-scale rescue operation on the island of Kythira (Ippolytos Prekas/kythera.news/AP)

Local resident Marth Stathaki told the Associated Press: “All the residents here went down to the harbour to try and help.

“We could see the boat smashing against the rocks and people climbing up those rocks to try and save themselves. It was an unbelievable sight.”

Kythira is some 250 miles (400km) west of Turkey and on a route often used by smugglers to bypass Greece and head directly to Italy.

The deaths occurred amid a heated spat between Greece and Turkey over the safety of migrants at sea, with Athens accusing its neighbour of failing to stop smugglers active on its shoreline and even using migrants to apply political pressure on the European Union.

Greece Migrants Missing
Authorities and local residents save a migrant during a large-scale rescue operation on the island of Kythira (Ippolytos Prekas/kythera.news/AP)

Greek migration minister Notis Mitarachi wrote in a tweet Thursday: “Urgent call to Turkey to take immediate action to prevent all irregular departures due to harsh weather conditions. Already today many lives lost in the Aegean, people are drowning in unseaworthy vessels. EU must act.”

Turkey denies the allegations and has publicly accused Greece of carrying out reckless summary deportations, known as pushbacks.

Speaking at the United Nations General Assembly last month, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, accused Greece of “turning the Aegean Sea into a graveyard” and held up photographs of dead migrant children.

Most migrants reaching Greece travel from nearby Turkey, but smugglers have changed routes in recent months in an effort to avoid heavily patrolled waters around Greek islands near the Turkish coastline.