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Refugees arrive on Greek island


Red Cross volunteer Stavros Zembillis carries a child from a cargo ship loaded with migrants which has arrived in Crete (AP)

Red Cross volunteer Stavros Zembillis carries a child from a cargo ship loaded with migrants which has arrived in Crete (AP)

Red Cross volunteer Stavros Zembillis carries a child from a cargo ship loaded with migrants which has arrived in Crete (AP)

More than 700 people, mostly refugees from Syria, are disembarking on the Greek island of Crete after a harrowing journey on a smuggling ship that broke down in gale-force winds while trying to reach Europe.

The Baris cargo ship lost engine power on Tuesday in international waters off Crete, and reached the coastal town of Ierapetra after being slowly towed for 40 hours by a Greek navy frigate.

Authorities said its passengers include many refugees from Syria - with a large number of women and children - seeking safety and a better life in Europe. They are said to be exhausted but overall in good health.

The coastguard started disembarking women and small children this morning. They were given preliminary care and food before being taken to temporary shelter at a basketball arena.

It is one of the largest single crossings of its kind in recent years. Tens of thousands of people from war zones and poverty-stricken African and Middle East countries risk the hazardous journey to Europe every year, paying smuggling gangs to transport them in usually unseaworthy craft ranging from dinghies to ageing rust-buckets. Most end up in Italy.

According to Amnesty International, more than 2,500 people have drowned or disappeared trying to make the trip this year - about 2% of the estimated total of 150,000 to attempt the journey.

The 250ft cargo ship lost power the same day Pope Francis called on European governments to do a better job of welcoming migrants in speeches to the European Parliament and Council of Europe. Francis said "we cannot allow the Mediterranean to become a vast cemetery".

Doctors have conducted preliminary health checks and polio vaccinations for children from Syria, where the disease has made a comeback, senior Greek public health official Panayiotis Efstathiou said. Kurds, Afghans and Palestinians were also aboard the ship, which originated in Antalya, Turkey.

Dr Giorgos Xyristakis said the migrants said they had been on the boat for at least four days.

A pregnant woman was airlifted to a hospital yesterday, but there were otherwise no reports of serious health problems aboard the Baris. Rumours of armed men aboard the vessel proved unfounded, the coastguard said.

Mr Efstathiou said the Syrians will receive refugee status and be released, while other passengers deemed to be in Greece illegally will be interned pending deportation.

The mayor of Ierapetra, a town of 16,000 people on a wide, open bay overlooked by hills, said he fully sympathises with the migrants. But stretched local authorities could not offer them shelter indefinitely, Theodossis Kaladzakis added.

"Ierapetra can look after these people for a week, but afterwards, unfortunately, we simply won't have that ability," he said. "It's not that we don't want to. We just can't."

In brief interviews while being moved away by police, many of the migrants said they had fled violence by militants from the Islamic State group in Syria or Iraq.

"They attacked us and killed our people, so we came here to save ourselves," said one man who said he was from Iraq. He only identified himself by his first name, Mohaned, to protect his relatives who remain in Iraq.

Another man who identified himself as Qassim, from the besieged northern Syrian town of Kobani, said he and his family had spent 11 days on the Baris.

One young woman kissed the rough harbour concrete as she arrived on land, and a child held up a piece of cardboard which read: "Thanks for Greece government saving children in the ship."