Middle East

Cyprus rescues 115 fleeing Syria in fishing boat

Cyprus said rescuers on Sunday saved more than 100 refugees fleeing the war in Syria after their boat ran into trouble overnight off the Mediterranean island.
The 115 people, including 54 women and children, had been aboard a small fishing boat about 40 nautical miles from the southern port of Larnaca at the time they struck trouble, said a source in the island's Joint Rescue Coordination Centre.
Cyprus police said they had arrested three people who had admitted to smuggling the refugees, while a fourth was on the run.
Hours after they were rescued, more than half of the refugees — who included some Lebanese and Palestinians — were taken by bus to a reception camp at Kokkinotrimithia outside Nicosia.
Sitting in tents, the refugees recounted their ordeal, with many telling AFP they had set their sights on Greece in mainland Europe.
"We didn't want to come to Cyprus. Life is too expensive here and it is difficult to find a job. This island is for tourists," said Zeina Joseph, a 38-year-old Palestinian who lived in Syria.
"We were at sea but didn't know where exactly we were," she said, adding that her journey had cost her $3,500 dollars and lasted three days.
Muwaffaq Abu Jeish, another refugee, said: "I saw death with my own eyes, and it was a slow death."
After three days drifting on a boat under the scorching Mediterranean sun that had turned his face and arms bright red, Abu Jeish said he too felt cheated.
"The migrants want more. They want, like many others, to go to northern Europe, specially that today they see so many who have succeeded in reaching Germany," said reception camp director John Avlonitis.
Germany, Europe's biggest economy, has taken in by far the EU's largest numbers of migrants amid the biggest refugee crisis to hit the continent since World War II.
The total number is expected to reach 800,000 this year. This weekend alone, some 17,000 migrants were expected to have passed through Bavaria in southern Germany.
The boat stranded off Cyprus had departed from the Syrian port town of Tartus and stopped in Tripoli, in northern Lebanon, Cypriot authorities said.
EU member Cyprus lies just 100 kilometres (60 miles) off the Syrian coast but has so far avoided a mass influx of refugees from that country's conflict, with most preferring to bypass the island.
– Suspects to appear in court –
Late on Saturday night, the boat's captain sent a distress signal as the vessel was listing because its engine stopped working.
All of those on board the stricken vessel were safely brought ashore to Larnaca by 7:00 am (0400 GMT) on Sunday, police said.
Some of them received first aid at the port, but "there were no serious injuries warranting a transfer to the hospital," Interior Minister Socrates Hasikos said.
On Sunday afternoon, three buses carrying 87 of the refugees reached the reception camp at Kokkinotrimithia.
Men and women, some carrying babies in their arms, walked in past high barbed-wire fences.
Civil defence said 20 people have asked for asylum and were transferred to a centre in Kofinou outside Larnaca.
Police spokesman Andreas Angelides said the three people arrested were expected to appear in court on Monday.
Police said the three suspects – aged 47, 33 and 28 — faced charges of people trafficking.
Local newspaper Phileleftheros reported that the boat's captain was among them.
"From the existing information it appears that each refugee paid more than 3,000 euros ($3,345)" for the journey, Angelides said.
Last September, 345 Syrian and Palestinian refugees were rescued by a cruise liner in stormy waters off the island's coast and housed for several months before their camp was closed.
Two months later, about 220 Syrian refugees crammed onto a fishing boat were rescued off the coast of Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus after hitting rough seas.
Europe has been facing an unprecedented influx this summer of people seeking refuge, many of them from war-torn Syria.
The UN refugee agency says over 2,500 people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean this year, many of them Syrian refugees desperate to escape their country's four-and-a-half-year brutal war.

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