Despite harassment from Turkish authorities, the Hellenic Coast Guard rescued 96 foreign nationals at sea, Greek Port Authority/Coast Guard spokesperson Nikos Lagadianos said on Wednesday.
"Ninety-six people have been rescued so far and 77 have been transferred to Karpathos and Rhodes islands, while 19 were collected by Turkish Coast Guard vessels," he said, noting that those rescued will undergo Covid-19 tests.
It is recalled a major search and rescue operation took place in the eastern Aegean Sea on Tuesday night, after authorities received an emergency call from a migrant boat.
The Hellenic Coast Guard said authorities received a distress call from the passengers on the vessel. There was no immediate information as to what kind of vessel it was, how many people were on board or what their nationalities were.
Five coast guard vessels, two military helicopters, one navy ship and five coast guard vessels, participated in the search.
According to Lagadianos, the incident was one of the largest and most successful rescue operations in the Aegean Sea, given the number of illegal immigrants (including children) were not wearing life jackets and the fact it took place at night.
"The port authorities have already identified three people among them who are allegedly the traffickers, and they were arrested," the spokesperson said.
He also underlined that this operation proves that Greece protects both the Greek and European borders and also saves lives in danger.
Lagadianos referred to the enormous effort of the Greek authorities "as organised criminal rings acting in Turkey have repeatedly attempted to illegally transfer a large number of migrants and refugees." As he said, lately they use sailboats or other pleasure boats to bring them to Europe, specifically to southern Italy, and remain in international waters and at great distance from Greek islands, to avoid detection. "For example, more than 25 such cases have occurred in the last 3 months, and been managed successfully by both Greek and Italian authorities. The Turkish authorities have been repeatedly informed about this specific phenomenon, without response," he added.
On his part, the Minister of Shipping and Island Policy Yiannis Plakiotakis congratulated the Coast Guard staff that helped rescue the illegal immigrants and commended them for protecting the borders of Greece and Europe and saving lives.
In a separate statement, the Ministry said that "unfortunately, during operations last night to locate possible missing persons, and after a great number of people had been rescued successfully in a short time, two Turkish patrol boats approached the area."
It added that the Turkish vessels "made no substantial contribution to the search for people in danger at sea in the area, nor did they announce their presence" in the person coordinating the Greek Coast Guard mission. "They were also calling on nearby ships in the area to leave," the statement said.
According to the ministry, the Turkish patrol boats "approached and received from a Maltese-flagged ship of Turkish interests in the area 19 survivors. They thus made the work of the Greek Coast Guard harder, both in identifying the survivors and in the development of the search operation and the rescue of possible missing persons."
"At any rate, Greece will continue to do what is necessary to guard both its own and Europe's borders, and to protect human lives," the statement concluded.