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Syrian refugees agree to leave rescue ship

By Agencies in Limassol, Cyprus | China Daily | Updated: 2014-09-27 08:37

 Syrian refugees agree to leave rescue ship

Syrian refugees who were rescued off the coast of Cyprus sit in a bus at the port in Limassol on Friday as they are transported to a camp on the outskirts of the capital Nicosia. Yiannis Kourtoglou / Agence France-Presse

Hundreds of mostly Syrian refugees rescued by a cruise ship in the Mediterranean agreed to disembark in Cyprus on Friday after a standoff ensued over their demand to be taken to Italy.

The refugees included many pregnant women and 20 babies, according the one cruise passenger.

The cruise ship plucked 345 migrants, who were believed to have sailed from a port in Syria, from a troubled trawler in bad weather off the coast of Cyprus on Thursday.

Some 700 cruise passengers got off the 157-meter Salamis Cruise Lines vessel at the port of Limassol, police said, but only 65 of those rescued at sea initially left the ship on Thursday. The others had refused to budge, the shipping company said.

The situation was resolved shortly before dawn on Friday after more than six hours of negotiations with police officers who had boarded the vessel, according to Marinos Papadopoulos, an interior ministry official.

"Everything went calmly," he said.

Medical and government teams were on hand to assist the refugees at the port, where camp beds were set up for them.

They were "all in good health", according to the harbor master of the Limassol port, George Ppouro.

The refugees were to be taken by bus to a camp not far from Nicosia, where they would be able to shower, get clean clothes and rest, according to the Red Cross.

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

'Terrible' sea conditions

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

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

Among the refugees were "many pregnant women and 20 babies", she said, describing the sea conditions off Cyprus at the time as "terrible".

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.

It was scheduled to set sail again on Thursday evening but was forced to stay in port as the refugees demanded to be sent to Italy, according to Kikis Vassiliou, managing director of Salamis.

"We did our utmost to save their lives, to give them food, support. And now they want to destroy this company," he said before the situation was resolved. He said the incident had cost the cruise line several hundred thousand euros.

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

Some 330,700 people fled the wars in Syria and Iraq and other conflicts during the first half of 2014 to seek asylum in more stable places, the UN refugee agency said on Friday.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said it expects the total number for the year to swell to 700,000, based on data received from 44 industrialized nations and a tendency to see higher numbers of asylum seekers during the second half of each year.

Reuters - AFP - AP




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