As the search for possible survivors continued Thursday, nine Egyptian men suspected of being smugglers were arrested in Greece, following the sinking of a boat carrying migrants off the Greek coast, which could have claimed hundreds of lives.
A port source related that among those arrested was the captain of the boat that capsized and sank, killing at least 78 people, according to official figures.
According to this source, the fishing boat had left Egypt empty before taking on migrants in Tobruk, a port city in eastern Libya, and had headed for Italy.
The suspects arrested in Kalamata, the port on the Peloponnese peninsula where the survivors were taken, are suspected of "illegal trafficking" in human beings, according to the Greek agency ANA.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) said it feared that "hundreds more people" had drowned "in one of the most devastating tragedies in the Mediterranean in a decade".
Greek government spokesman Ilias Siakantaris had said on Wednesday that unconfirmed reports put the number of people on board the trawler at 750.
Two patrol boats, a navy frigate, three helicopters and nine other vessels were continuing to inspect the waters to the west of the Peloponnese coast, one of the deepest areas of the Mediterranean.
The Greek supreme court has also ordered an inquiry to determine the causes of the tragedy, which has shocked Greece, which has been accused of years of turning back migrants seeking asylum in the EU.
A three-day national mourning period was declared, interrupting the electoral campaign for the legislative elections on 25 June.
But some newspapers made no secret of their anger at this latest tragedy involving migrants. The center left daily Efsyn ran the simple headline "Shame" in six languages.
In Athens and Thessaloniki, Greece's second largest city, some 5,000 people took to the streets, according to the police, bearing slogans such as "The government and the European Union are killing" and "No to Fortress Europe. Solidarity with refugees".
“In a state of shock”
In the port of Kalamata, "it's really horrible", UNHCR employee Erasmia Roumana explained. The survivors are "in a very bad psychological state (...) Many are in a state of shock, they are overwhelmed".
One hundred and four people were rescued and should soon be transferred to a reception center for migrants in Malakasa, north-east of Athens.
The survivors "are all men", said the coastguard spokeswoman, raising fears that women and children, who usually also board these boats, were among those missing.
Most of the survivors were Syrians (47), Egyptians (43), as well as 12 Pakistanis and two Palestinians, according to the Greek authorities.
One survivor also told doctors at Kalamata hospital that he had seen around a hundred children in the hold of the boat, according to the public television channel ERT.
More than twenty people remain hospitalized in Kalamata, according to the same source.
An image broadcast by the coastguard showed a blue trawler, between 25 and 30 meters long and clearly in poor condition, overloaded with people, gathered on deck from bow to stern and even on the roof of the gangway.
According to the Greek port authorities, a surveillance plane from the European agency Frontex had spotted the boat on Tuesday afternoon, but the rescue services did not intervene because the passengers "refused all help".
Frontex did not comment. However, its boss Hans Leijtens travelled to Kalamata to establish "the role" of the European border surveillance agency in this "horrific" shipwreck.
"You don't ask people on board a boat adrift if they want help (...), immediate help would have been needed", Nikos Spanos, an international expert on maritime incidents, told ERT.
"The question is not whether the boat refuses help (...) An overloaded boat is a boat in distress, there is no question of its condition or its ability to continue its journey or not", added Jérôme Tubiana, from Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) on the French public radio station France Culture.
The boat capsized 47 nautical miles (87 km) from Pylos, in the Ionian Sea, said Mr. Siakantaris, sinking in ten to fifteen minutes.
According to several officials, the survivors did not have life jackets.