Almost 300 mostly Syrian refugees rescued by a cruise liner were refusing Friday to disembark in Cyprus’s southern port of Limassol, demanding instead to be taken to Italy, the cruise company said.
A total of 345 migrants, mainly women and children, had been plucked from a boat in trouble off the coast of Cyprus on Thursday by a Salamis Cruise Lines ship, according to the company and Cypriot authorities.
Some 700 paying passengers disembarked from the 157-metre liner, police said, but only 65 of those rescued at sea left the ship.
The others refused to budge, the shipping company said.
“We were supposed to sail at 10:30 tonight (2130 GMT Thursday), unfortunately, these people want to negotiate,” Kikis Vassiliou, managing director of Salamis Cruise Lines, told reporters. “They want us to send them to Italy.”
“We did our utmost to save their lives, to give them food, support and now they want to destroy this company,” he added, speaking of several hundred thousands of euros (dollars) in losses.
“There is no responsible person to negotiate and to explain the situation,” he bemoaned.
At 4:00 am (0100 GMT) Friday, negotiations were continuing, with doctors, nurses, civil defence and Red Cross workers on hand.
The 65 refugees who willingly left the ship were bussed to the Kokkinotrimithia camp not far from Nicosia.
Meanwhile, three hundred Russian passengers, who had been due to continue their cruise to Haifa, Israel, had their journey cancelled and were put up in Limassol hotels.
Earlier, the defence ministry had said the rescue operation had been “completed smoothly and without any injury”.
The aid workers said eight of those rescued were suffering from dehydration, while some others had “minor” problems.
One passenger said a refugee had told her they had sailed from Syria and been at sea for three days and that their skipper had abandoned them.
“The captain of their boat made a phone call and a speed boat came and took the captain,? said Chrystalla Eflatsoumis, 66.
Among the refugees were “many pregnant women and 20 babies,” she added.
– Early-morning SOS –
The cruise ship had answered a distress signal from a trawler sailing some 50 nautical miles off the Cyprus coast in poor weather conditions, the Cyprus defence ministry said.
The trawler sent out the signal at 6:25 am (0325 GMT) when it was southwest of the tourist hub of Paphos, the government said.
The liner had been en route from the Greek island of Syros to Limassol when it received a call to assist in the rescue operation.
The defence ministry had first said around 300 people, mostly women and children, were on board and needed rescue “because of bad weather conditions in the area”.
“The ship probably comes from Syria with civilian refugees,” a statement added, but there was no news on the trawler’s port of embarkation or when it had sailed.
Cyprus is located about 100 kilometres (62 miles) from the shores of war-ravaged Syria.
In August 2012, seven Syrians, including two children, drowned when the boat they were sailing to Cyprus to escape the conflict in their homeland sank off the island’s northern coast.
The Mediterranean has been plagued by shipwrecks in recent months involving migrants trying to reach Europe from Africa and the Middle East.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees says more than 2,500 people have drowned or been reported lost at sea this year trying to cross the Mediterranean.
In one of the deadliest wrecks on record, a ship carrying some 500 migrants — including Syrians, Palestinians and Egyptians — was deliberately sunk by traffickers off Malta earlier this month, leaving just 10 known survivors.