By Staff Reporter
SOME 350 people, thought to be refugees from Syria who may have paid more than $3,000 per person to escape the war-torn area, were safely ashore last night after a massive salvage operation of a fishing trawler that had fallen adrift southwest of the island.
A total of 345 people – 293 adults and 52 children – were given shelter at a processing and receiving terminal specially set up at Limassol harbour. There they were to receive medical attention and were next set to be transported to an army barracks in Kokkinotrimithia, near Nicosia.
Other than a few children suffering from dehydration, all the distressed passengers were reported to be in good health.
The cruise ship came to the trawler’s rescue after the vessel issued a radio distress signal in the morning. Authorities contacted the Salamis – which at the time was out at sea headed back to Limassol – to plot a new course and meet up with the trawler.
“It was a quite a difficult operation,” said Kikis Vasiliou, director of Salamis Cruises, owner of the cruise ship. “All the passengers are safe.”
Vasiliou commended the captain and the crew, adding that the goal was to save the people’s lives.
Photos taken from an army helicopter showed dozens of people sitting on the main deck of the trawler being battered by rough sea and strong winds.
The rescue effort finished at around 2.30pm. No one was injured during the transfer to the cruise ship, the defence ministry said.
The ministry said the distress signal from the boat was received at 6.25am. The vessel was located some 50 nautical miles (90 km) south-west of Paphos.
Aboard the cruise ship was a camera crew of state broadcaster CyBC, who beamed back images of the rescue operation.
Some of the rescued people told the CyBC crew that their initial destination was Sicily.
They said that when the boat ran into trouble the captain jumped into a speedboat and took off, leaving the people to fend for themselves.
They said the rate for the perilous trip was $3,000 per child, higher for adults. The captain had pocketed some $2 million, they estimated.
Organising the rescue operation was the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre (JRCC) in Larnaca, with police, the immigration department, Civil Defence, the Ports Authority, the foreign ministry and the health ministry all involved.
Patrol boats and helicopters were scrambled and all relevant departments were put on standby to receive the passengers and provide medical treatment.
Conflicting initial reports said the boat had set off from Syria or Turkey.
Asked about the fate of the 350, Justice minister Ionas Nicolaou said Cyprus is bound by international treaty to rescue distressed passengers within its search-and-rescue region and provide them with shelter and care.
“Later on we shall see what will happen, if they will return to their countries or some other destination. We shall examine all scenarios, and we are in touch with international organisations such as the United Nations in order to handle the matter on the basis of international treaties.”
For his part, Defence minister Christoforos Fokaidis said the government was “troubled” by the prospect of repeat occurrences in the future.
“Due to the turmoil in our region, it is possible that we may have similar incidents down the line. This is the first such incident involving a large number of illegal immigrants,” he said.
This year has seen a spike in the number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean in overcrowded boats – particularly people fleeing the conflict in Syria. The majority have headed for Italy and Malta.