At least 22 dead after two migrant boats sink off the coast of Greece

Rescuers worked through the night to save migrants whose boat sank near the island of Kythira

Greek authorities have confirmed that people - 16 young African women, a man and a boy - have died after a dinghy carrying migrants sank, near the eastern island of Lesbos, on Thursday.

The Hellenic Coast Guard said it had launched a search and rescue operation to save the remaining occupants of the boat.

In its latest update it confirmed that ten women had been rescued, while 12 other migrants were believed to be missing, after a dinghy carrying about 40 people sank.

“The women who were rescued were in a full state of panic so we are still trying to work out what happened,” coast guard spokesman Nikos Kokkalas told state television. “The women were all from African countries, aged 20 upward.

"There is a search on land as well as at sea and we hope that survivors made it to land.”

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis voiced “deep sorrow for the tragic loss of life,” and praised rescuers’ “heroic” efforts.

“This is a time to really cooperate much more substantially in order to avoid these types of incidents occurring in the future and to completely eradicate the smugglers who prey upon innocent people” trying to reach Europe in unseaworthy boats, Mr Mitsotakis added.

Migrants rescued near the island of Lesbos were taken to hospital for treatment. Credit: AP

Meanwhile, a second rescue effort is still ongoing several hundred kilometers to the west, near the island of Kythira, where a sailboat carrying about 100 migrants hit rocks and sand on Wednesday.

Kythira is some 400 kilometers (250 miles) west of Turkey and on a route often used by smugglers to bypass Greece and head directly to Italy.

The bodies of at least four migrants were seen next to floating debris from the sailboat.

Officials said the deaths would be officially recorded when the bodies were recovered. They added that 80 people, from Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan, had been rescued while a search continues for as many as 11 still believed to be missing.

With winds in the area reaching 70kph (45mph), fire service rescuers and local volunteers, on Kythira, lowered ropes to help migrants climb up cliffs on the seafront.

Survivors were pulled to safety as others were buffeted by waves, while they waited their turn on tiny areas of rock at the bottom.

“We could see the boat smashing against the rocks and people climbing up those rocks to try and save themselves. It was an unbelievable sight,” Martha Stathaki, a local resident told The Associated Press. “All the residents here went down to the harbour to try and help.”

A rescue operation was launched near the island of Kythira on Wednesday. Credit: AP

The deaths occurred amid a heated spat between Greece and Turkey over the safety of migrants at sea, with Athens accusing its neighbour of failing to stop smugglers active on its shoreline.

“Once again, Turkey’s tolerance of gangs of ruthless traffickers has cost human lives,” Greek Shipping Minister Yannis Plakiotakis said.

“As long as the Turkish coastguard does not prevent their activities, the traffickers cram unfortunate people, without safety measures, into boats that cannot withstand the weather conditions, putting their lives in mortal danger.”

Turkey denies the allegations and has publicly accused Greece of carrying out reckless summary deportations, known as pushbacks.

Most migrants reaching Greece travel from neighbouring Turkey, but smugglers have changed routes in recent months in an effort to avoid heavily patrolled waters around Greek islands, near the Turkish coastline.

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