A fishing boat packed with Syrians and Iraqis hoping to reach Europe struck rocks and sank off the coast of western Turkey, drowning scores of people, Turkish media reported Thursday.
The boat sank off the Turkish province of Izmir, and the governor there said the death toll had reached 61, including 28 children and three infants, the Anadolu news agency reported. Turkish television showed rescue boats ringing the stricken vessel, which had sunk below the surface. Rescue divers worked to free people trapped underwater in the wreckage.
Turkish media reported that 46 people were rescued from the Aegean Sea, most of them Syrians and Iraqis who had hoped to reach Britain with the help of smugglers. The boat captain and his assistant survived and were detained by police, according to local media.
Refugees from Syria have poured into Turkey and other neighboring countries. The numbers have been so vast that Turkey has left thousands waiting at its border as it tries to process all the newcomers. More than 80,000 Syrian refugees are already taking shelter in the country, the Turkish government said.
Those drownings were the first deaths of Syrians fleeing their country by sea that the U.N. agency said it was aware of, though earlier reports indicated that Syrians had boarded boats trying to reach Italy.
The newly reported deaths off the coast of Turkey may indicate that more people are risking the dangerous waters as violence escalates in Syria and Turkey struggles to cope with the influx. Well before the Syrian crisis began, however, Turkey has served as a stepping stone for migrants from Asia and Africa hoping to reach Europe.
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: Coast guard crews search for survivors after a fishing boat sank after hitting rocks off the western coast of Turkey on Thursday. Credit: Associated Press / Hurriyet