Hundreds of refugees and migrants were rescued from a sinking boat on Friday in a massive operation off the island of Crete, the Greek coastguard said. They recovered at least four bodies.
Coastguard spokesman Nikos Lagadianos said at least 340 people had been rescued, but the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said the vessel "is believed to have left Africa with at least 700 migrants on board."
That means hundreds of refugees are still not accounted for by the authorities.
Last week, the UN’s refugee agency confirmed more than 800 refugees drowned in three separate shipwrecks in the Mediterranean Sea during the course of the week. The boats, carrying refugees attempting to cross into Europe from Africa, reportedly sank south of the coast of Italy.
THE RESCUE OPERATION
Greek search and rescue teams including four ships were dispatched in clear but windy conditions to the site, about 75 nautical miles off southern Crete in territory which falls under Egypt's jurisdiction.
In total, 340 people were rescued by midday, Greek authorities said. There was no immediate information on the nationalities of the refugees or on the victims.
Greek media said the wooden boat the refugees and migrants were sailing on started taking in water. It was not immediately clear where the boat had sailed from.
"From some scattered accounts we have heard (from those rescued) they set off from the African coastline," coastguard spokesman Lagkadianos told Reuters.
It was too early to determine how many people had been on the vessel, he said.
Hundreds of thousands of mainly Syrian refugees crossed the short but precarious sea corridor to Greece from Turkey last year in small inflatable boats, but that route was effectively sealed after an EU-Turkey refugee deal signed in March.
The deal has effectively changed the refugee route from the Aegean Sea to the central Mediterranean Sea. In addition, warm weather and calmer seas in the Mediterranean have led to a surge in recent weeks in the number of people trying to cross to Italy from Libya, where human-traffickers operate with relative impunity.
Nevertheless, some 204,000 migrants and refugees have crossed into Europe since January, UN's refugee agency said on Tuesday.
Boats on this much longer journey risk being blown off course to islands such as Crete. Friday's incident was the third in a week involving migrant rescues or landings on the island.