At least 17 migrants, including two babies, drown off Turkish coast

PHOTO: Reuters

Ayvacik, Turkey - At least 17 migrants, including two babies, drowned on Saturday when their boat sank in the Aegean Sea while trying to cross from Turkey to Greece, an AFP photographer and the coastguard said.

Several others were still missing after the latest tragedy in another deadly week for migrants fleeing war and misery across the Mediterranean to Europe, during which dozens have drowned.

The migrants, who included Syrian and Afghan refugees, set sail from the shores of Canakkale province in an apparent bid to reach the nearby Greek island of Lesbos when their boat ran into trouble.

An AFP photographer saw the body of a baby, still fully clothed, among those found washed up on a pebble beach near the town of Ayvacik, and said another baby was found dead in the water.

The photographer counted a total of 17 victims, several of them children. Earlier a coastguard official confirmed a death toll of at least 10 but after that the photographer counted a further seven bodies.

"We are sad. At least 20 friends are still missing," a woman who was among the survivors said, weeping.

Most of those found alive were women and children.

The capsized boat was visible around 50 metres from the shore, where divers from the coastguard were still searching for the missing. Some local residents were also helping in the rescue operation.

Some of the bodies were put in bags and taken to a morgue. Life jackets and other refugees' belongings were seen dotted around the beach.

The drownings come two days after 25 migrants, including 10 children, died off the Greek island of Samos, continuing a grisly trend that accelerated last year when nearly 4,000 people died trying to reach Europe by sea, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Turkey, which is hosting at least 2.5 million refugees from Syria's civil war, has become the main launchpad for migrants fleeing war, persecution and poverty to Europe.

The Turkish government struck a deal with the EU in November to halt the outflow of refugees, in return for 3 billion euros (S$4.6 billion) in financial assistance, but the agreement has failed to check the migrant tide.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Friday that, with 2,000 new asylum seekers entering the Balkans on their journey to northern Europe every day, the EU "urgently" needed to implement its side of the agreement.

Italy has however questioned how much of the money should come from the EU budget, and how much control the bloc will have over how Ankara spends the funds.

Turkey's minister for EU affairs Volkan Bozkir Saturday dismissed any problems with Italy about the release of the EU money and said the funds would be released in February.

The IOM said on Friday an estimated 55,528 migrants crossed the Mediterranean to Europe during the first 28 days of 2016 - a rate of nearly 2,000 per day.

During the same period IOM recorded 244 deaths at sea, as well as at least a dozen more deaths on land.

VIDEOS TO WATCH

SERVICES