RAMALLAH // More than 60 migrants, most of them Palestinian and Syrian and more than half of them children, drowned yesterday after the boat attempting to smuggle them to Europe struck rocks off Turkey's western coast, an official said.
Tahsin Kurtbeyoglu, the governor of Menderes in Turkey's Izmir province, told Reuters that an initial investigation showed the small vessel sank due to overcrowding. The death toll was high because many of the victims were trapped below deck when it sank, Turkish media reported.
"The total death toll is 61, including 12 men, 18 women, 28 children and three babies," Mr Kurtbeyoglu's office in Izmir said in a statement.
The governor's office said most of the migrants were Palestinian and Syrian. Turkish media reports said some of the survivors were from Iraq. Palestinian officials in the West Bank and Gaza Strip could not be reached for comment.
Some 46 people had so far been rescued alive, including the ship's Turkish captain and assistant, who were arrested, Mr Kurtbeyoglu said.
Television footage of the incident showed rescue ships surrounding a vessel submerged just below the surface. Emergency responders and ambulances could be seen observing the capsized vessel from nearby cliffs.
Turkey's Dogan News Agency reported dozens of survivors swimming to shore from the scene of the accident, about 50 metres out to sea, suggesting it occurred shortly after the vessel, a fishing boat, departed. It was unclear when it set sail, but most such attempts occur at night so as to avoid capture by sea patrols
Turkey has become a transit hub for migrants from African, Arab and Asian countries trying to cross illegally into Europe. Greece, across the Aegean Sea from Turkey, also is a popular destination for migrants who leave the western Anatolian shores on a journey regularly made by ramshackle vessels.
About 130,000 immigrants cross Greece's sea and land borders every year, the vast majority via Turkey. Greece received more than 1,000 migrants by sea last year, according to the United Nations refugee agency. Another 55,000 crossed the land border between Greece and Turkey at Évros, according to Greek government figures.
In July, Greece announced that it would boost its defences against such influxes, including a quadrupling of its border-protection forces with Turkey. Concern has risen in Europe about the influx of refugees fleeing the civil war in Syria for Turkey, which has taken in some 80,000 of them in overcrowded refugee camps along its 800-kilometre border with Syria.
Fear has grown that they might try to sail abroad, especially if conditions in Turkey's camps deteriorate.
With additional reporting by Reuters