A migrant boat could have been carrying as many as 750 people, including more than 100 children, when it capsized in one of the deepest areas of the Mediterranean, around 45 miles south-west of Peloponnese, off southern Greece.
Rescuers managed to pull some survivors from the water, and although only 79 bodies have been recovered, it is feared that as many as 600 could have drowned.
The Italy-bound vessel had departed empty from Egypt and stopped at the Libyan port of Tobruk, where it picked up the desperate migrants.
The Greek coastguard received criticism for not intervening earlier, but said their offers of aid were refused with those aboard insisting that they wished to continue on into Italian waters.
Greece is one of the main routes into the EU for refugees from all over the Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
The latest reports suggest that nine arrests have been made, which include several Egyptians, on the suspicion of people trafficking.
Greek help refused with Italy the preference
The Greek coastguard were initially informed about the presence of a migrant boat in their area by Italian authorities and were able to make contact with the vessel several hours later. Their offers of assistance were turned down with spokesperson Nikos Alexiou confirming that they tried several times to convince the boat to accept help, but on each occasion they were dismissed, with an insistence that it was Italy and not Greece that the “passengers” wanted as their final destination.
Women and children “trapped”
Mr Alexiou stated that the outer deck was full of people and presumed that the interior of the 25-30 metre long craft “would also have been full”, something confirmed later by several survivors who reported that the hold of the ship was full of women and children.
Greek government spokesman Ilias Siakantaris said it was not known how many people were in the hold but made the point that: “We know that several smugglers lock people up to maintain control.”
Shifting on packed deck possibly played a part in sinking
Observations were maintained from a distance after their offers of assistance and at around 22.40 hrs there was a report of engine failure. “It looked as if there was a shift among the people who were crammed on board when the engine shut down and it could have been this movement which caused the capsizing,” said Mr Alexiou.
Rescuers arrive in numbers
The coastguard were aided by the navy and merchant vessels, who fanned out for a vast search-and-rescue operation that also included a plane, a helicopter and a drone.
They were then joined by the 300 foot long Mayan Queen IV super-yacht, which carried many of the survivors of Egyptian, Pakistani, Syrian, and Palestinian nationalities, into the port of Kalamata.
Katerina Tsata, who is head of a Red Cross volunteer group based at the port, said the migrants were given physical and psychological support, which was backed up by rescue volunteer Constantinos Vlachonikolos who noted that nearly all the survivors were young men.
“They were very worn out; how could they not be? But they were probably indebted to their age and fitness.”
Greece is observing three days of mourning out of respect.