MALAKASA: Survivors of a boat disaster that likely killed hundreds of migrants near Greece said the tragic end, when it came, was precipitated by the actions of the Greek coastguard.

They have told judicial authorities of a doomed attempt to tow the overloaded trawler that caused the vessel to capsize in the early hours of June 14.

A disastrous coastguard towing attempt was recounted in six of the nine statements from survivors submitted to Greek judicial officials investigating the causes of the tragedy, according to evidence seen by Reuters.

One Syrian survivor said he and other migrants on board the Adriana, which had broken down en route to Italy, screamed “Stop!” after a Greek coastguard vessel attached a rope to the bow of the trawler and began to pull it while picking up speed.

The migrant boat tilted left and right and then it turned upside down, he added.

Three other witnesses said they didn’t know what caused the Adriana to capsize.

The statements of the six witnesses clash with the public statements given by the Greek coastguard and government, which have said no attempt was made to tow the boat and that it overturned when the coastguard was about 70 metres away.

The nine survivors submitted their accounts on June 17-18 to investigators conducting a preliminary probe into the disaster. group of suspected traffickers, arrested on June 15 on charges including manslaughter, migrant smuggling and causing a shipwreck, have been jailed pending a fuller investigation that could culminate in a trial. They deny wrongdoing.

The towing episode was also recounted by two other survivors who were separately interviewed by Reuters and asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals from Greek authorities. One of them, who gave his name only as Mohamed, described the terrifying moments when the Adriana overturned, which he said came when the coastguard started tugging the boat.

“They quickly pulled us and the boat capsized. It moved to the right, to the left, to the right and it capsized. People started to fall on each other,” he said.

On June 15 a coastguard spokesperson, responding to local media reports that cited some survivors who said the trawler was towed, publicly denied that a coastguard vessel had attached a rope to the Adriana at any time. A day later, the coastguard amended its account: it said its vessel had attached a rope to the Adriana to help it draw nearer to communicate. The coastguard denied it had tried to tow the trawler, saying it had kept its distance.

Nikos Spanos, a retired admiral in the Greek coastguard, told Reuters it was unlikely that a coastguard vessel would have attempted such a dangerous manoeuvre as towing the stricken trawler.

“Its (the coastguard’s) aim was to establish a better contact to help the vessel and assess the situation. This is my understanding. Because if they had tried to tow it or anything else, it would have been too risky and this wouldn’t have been the right way to do it.”

When the Adriana capsized and sank, it was carrying between 400 and 750 migrants mostly from Syria, Egypt and Pakistan, the UN refugee agency says.

At 11:40pm on June 13 the vessel approached the trawler, which had a malfunctioning engine, and tied a rope to the boat to allow it to draw closer and talk to those on board to assess the situation and if they needed help, the log said. People on board shouted “No help” and “Go Italy” and untied the rope, according to the log.

Published in Dawn, July 2nd, 2023

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