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Greek court questions smuggling suspects over migrant ship disaster

As new details emerge from survivor accounts, a bleak portrait of the conditions on board the migrant ship have emerged. Meanwhile, Greece's coast guard is under increasing scrutiny for its possible role in the sinking.

Survivor accounts detail appalling conditions, as coast guard comes under scrutiny

The Greek flag flies at half-mast next to Greece's ancient Parthenon temple.

Nine men suspected of crewing the year's biggest migrant smuggling ship that sank off Greece, leaving more than 500 missing, appeared in court for questioning on Tuesday, as new accounts emerged on the sinking and the appalling conditions on the trip from Libya toward Italy.

The Egyptian suspects face charges that include participation in a criminal organization, manslaughter and causing a shipwreck. A court in Greece's southern city of Kalamata ordered their detention after questioning them for hours.

Only 104 men and youths — Egyptians, Pakistanis, Syrians and Palestinians — survived the sinking in the Mediterranean Sea early on June 14. Eighty-two bodies have been recovered, as a large search continued Tuesday for a seventh day.

New survivor accounts emerged Tuesday confirming that about 750 people paid thousands of dollars each for a berth on the battered blue fishing trawler, seeking a better life in Europe.

In sworn testimony provided over the weekend, and seen by The Associated Press, survivors described shocking conditions on the five-day journey. Most of the passengers were denied food and water, and those who couldn't bribe the crew to get out of the hold were beaten if they tried to reach deck level.

The testimony also echoed previous accounts that the steel-hulled trawler sank in calm seas during a botched attempt to tow it. This clashes with the Greek coast guard's insistence that neither its patrol boat that escorted the trawler in its last hours nor any other vessel attached a tow rope.

Survivors detail moments before disaster

"The Greek ship cast a rope and it was tied to our bows," survivor Abdul Rahman Alhaz said in his sworn testimony. "Then we moved forward, but not for more than two minutes. We shouted 'stop, stop!' because our boat was listing. [It] was in bad shape and overloaded, and shouldn't have been towed."

Alhaz, a 24-year-old Palestinian from Syria, said he paid $4,000 US to board the ship at Tobruk in eastern Libya. He said the "people in charge" on the trawler were all Egyptians, and he recognized seven suspects from pictures shown to him by Greek authorities.

"Most of the Pakistanis were in the hold and were lost with the boat," he said. "One of the crew had told me there were more than 400 Pakistanis on the boat, and only 11 were saved."

WATCH | Egyptian men charged in ship disaster:

11 Egyptian men charged in capsized migrant ship tragedy

1 day ago

Duration 1:59

The 11 suspects arrested in the capsizing made a court appearance in Greece. Pakistan observed a day of mourning with hundreds of its citizens feared drowned.

Greece has been widely criticized for not trying to save the migrants before the sinking in international waters. Officials in Athens say the passengers refused any help and insisted on proceeding to Italy, adding that it would have been too dangerous to try to evacuate hundreds of unwilling people off an overcrowded ship.

The full details of the sinking remain unclear. Photos and videos from before the sinking show people crammed on all available open spaces of the trawler.

One survivor, Ali Sheikhi, who is from the northeast Syrian town of Kobani, told Kurdish TV news channel Rudaw that the smugglers didn't allow life-jackets and threw whatever food the passengers had into the sea.

Speaking late Sunday by phone from a closed reception centre near Athens where survivors were taken, Sheikhi said he was directed to the hold but paid the smugglers to go out onto deck.

A young woman in a Red Cross jacket offers first aid to a young man with dark hair who survived a shipwreck near Athens, Greece.

By the time the ship sank, they had been at sea for five days. Water ran out after a day and a half, and he said some passengers resorted to drinking seawater.

Sheikhi also said the trawler went down after its engine broke down and another vessel tried to tow it. "In the pulling, [the trawler] sank," he said.

EU promises support

Asked about the tragedy as World Refugee Day was marked around the world on Tuesday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said: "It is horrible, what happened, and the more urgent is that we act."

Von der Leyen, the head of the European Union's executive arm, said the EU should help African countries like Tunisia — where many migrants leave for Europe — to stabilize their economies, as well as finalize a long-awaited reform of the 27-nation bloc's asylum rules.

She did not, however, mention Libya, from where the doomed trawler and many similarly overloaded Europe-bound boats depart across the particularly dangerous Mediterranean migration route.

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Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca

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