350 refugees rescued by cruise ship 'refuse to disembark in Cyprus'

350 refugees rescued by cruise ship 'refuse to disembark in Cyprus'
Refugees who were rescued off the coast of Cyprus are checked by Cypriot authorities at the port of Limassol on September 25, 2014.

LIMASSOL, Cyprus - Some 350 mostly Syrian refugees rescued by a cruise liner on Thursday refused to disembark in Cyprus's southern port of Limassol, demanding instead to be taken to Italy, the cruise company said.

The migrants, mainly women and children, had been plucked from a boat in trouble off the coast of Cyprus by a Salamis Cruise Lines ship, according to the company and Cypriot authorities.

The liner's 700 paying passengers disembarked first, police said, while the refugees remained on board until immigration and health checks could be carried out.

"We were supposed to sail at 10:30 tonight (2130 GMT), unfortunately these people want to negotiate," Kikis Vassiliou, managing director of Salamis Cruise Lines, told reporters. "They want us to send them to Italy." "We did our outmost to save their lives, to give them food, support and now they want to destroy this company," he added, speaking of several hundred thousands of euros (dollars) in losses.

"There is no responsible person to negotiate and to explain the situation." he bemoaned.

Doctors, nurses, civil defence and Red Cross workers were all on hand, and two ambulances were standing by in case they were needed, an AFP correspondent said.

Earlier, the defence ministry had said the rescue operation had been "completed smoothly and without any injury".

The aid workers said eight of those rescued were suffering from dehydration, while some others had "minor" problems.

More than 50 camp beds had been set up dockside.

Sandwiches and bottled water were distributed, as well as cookies and candy for the children.

One passenger said a refugee had told her they had sailed from Syria and been at sea for three days and that their skipper had abandoned them.

"The captain of their boat made a phone call and a speed boat came and took the captain," said Chrystalla Eflatsoumis, 66.

Among the refugees were "many pregnant women and 20 babies," she added.

Early-morning SOS

The cruise ship had answered a distress signal from a trawler sailing some 50 nautical miles off the Cyprus coast southwest in poor weather conditions, the Cyprus defence ministry said.

The trawler sent out the signal at 6:25 am (0325 GMT) when it was southwest of the tourist hub of Paphos, the government said.

The liner had been en route from the Greek island of Syros to Limassol when it received a call to assist in the rescue operation.

The defence ministry had first said around 300 people, mostly women and children, were on board and needed rescue "because of bad weather conditions in the area".

"The ship probably comes from Syria with civilian refugees," a statement added, but there was no news on the trawler's port of embarkation or when it had sailed.

Cyprus is located about 100 kilometres (62 miles) from the shores of war-ravaged Syria.

In August 2012, seven Syrians, including two children, drowned when the boat they were sailing to Cyprus to escape the conflict in their homeland sank off the island's northern coast.

The Mediterranean has been plagued by shipwrecks in recent months involving migrants trying to reach Europe from Africa and the Middle East.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees says more than 2,500 people have drowned or been reported lost at sea this year trying to cross the Mediterranean.

In one of the deadliest wrecks on record, a ship carrying some 500 migrants - including Syrians, Palestinians and Egyptians - was deliberately sunk by traffickers off Malta earlier this month, leaving just 10 known survivors.

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