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13 including 6 children drown off Greece – Protesters target border fence after refugee deaths

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ATHENS, Nov 1, (Agencies): At least 13 migrants, six of them children, drowned as two boats making the hazardous crossing from Turkey capsized in the Aegean Sea off Greece on Sunday, the coastguard said. The first tragedy occurred off the island of Samos when a boat overturned just 20 metres (yards) from shore. Ten bodies — including six children, four of them babies — were found in the vessel’s cabin while that of a girl was washed up on the island, where dozens of refugees have perished trying to reach Europe in recent days.

Two others were still missing with coastguards saying 15 were plucked from the water. A boat from the European border agency Frontex also recovered two bodies near the island of Farmakonnisi, near Samos, the coastguard said. Frontex also rescued three others, who said their boat was carrying 15 people when it sank in Turkish waters. Greek authorities and the Turkish coastguard “continue to search the zone to find the migrants who disappeared in the sinking, which probably took place off the Turkish coast,” a representative of the Greek coastguard’s press office told AFP. The new sinkings add to a string of migrant boat tragedies since Monday off the Greek islands of Lesbos, Kalymnos and Rhodes in which more than 60 people have drowned, at least 28 of them children. On Friday alone 22 people, including 17 children, lost their lives trying to cross to the eastern Aegean islands from Turkey, to which more than two million Syrian refugees have fled.

That followed another black day on Wednesday when 24 migrants — 11 of them children — died in five shipwrecks off Lesbos, Samos and Agathonisi. With the arrival of rough winter weather, and fears that Europe is about to close its doors to refugees, more than 80 people — most of them children — have drowned trying to reach Greece in October, according to an AFP count. Since the beginning of the year, 580,125 migrants have landed on Greece’s shores, according to the UN refugee agency UNHCR, with a total of 723,221 crossing the Mediterranean to Europe.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said Friday that the drownings were a “humanitarian tragedy” and a “shame” for Europe. He is to travel to Lesbos this week with the president of the European parliament, Martin Schultz, his office said. Meanwhile, protesters clashed with police guarding a border fence in northern Greece Saturday, following a series of sea accidents that killed dozens of migrants and a warning from authorities that the death toll is likely rise in coming weeks. About 500 anti-government protesters, who traveled from Athens and several towns in northern Greece were involved in the clashes near the border with Turkey after challenging a police cordon blocking access to the fence that spans more than 10 kilometers (6.2 miles).

The demonstrators are demanding that Greece tear down the fence and allow refugees to cross by land instead of risking their lives on the sea crossing to Europe. The youths, many wearing hoods and balaclavas, hurled rocks at police who responded with tear gas and stun grenades. No arrests or injuries were reported. The government says it cannot remove the fence for “practical reasons” and has called on other European Union countries to speed up additional support promised for search and rescue operations in the east Aegean Sea. Greece is struggling to cope with a surge in arrivals, many fleeing the civil war in Syria and other conflicts, and the crossing is becoming increasing deadly as winter approaches. More than 60 people, half of them children, have died in the past four days while trying to reach Lesbos and other Greek islands from the Turkish coast. Most of the recent deaths have occurred in an 8-kilometer (5-mile) stretch of sea separating Turkey from the northern coast of Lesbos.

The head of the island’s port authority, Coast Guard Lt. Cdr. Antonios Sofiadelis warned that smugglers were using increasingly dangerous tactics. “Many of the boats are going for scrap and they use them for one last trip,” he told The Associated Press in an interview. “Smugglers usually take the boats to the edge of Greek waters and then get picked up by speed boats. The people on the boats usually have no experience at sea.” Sofiadelis warned that more fatal accidents are likely as the weather worsens and smugglers become increasingly brazen. “We have 50 to 60 crossings a day to Lesbos and sometimes half of those boats are in distress. We typically have five or six (serious) rescue operations every day. We simply can’t be everywhere at the same time. So unless something changes on the Turkish coast, there will be more deaths.”

Despite rough seas, thousands more people arrived on Lesbos on Saturday, mostly by dinghy. Many camped on a hill next to a police registration center where refugees obtain travel documents. Afghan Nagib Akhbari warmed himself by a fire in a large basin of scrap metal as his son assembled a tent. “I came with my five children and wife. We (crossed) Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey in eight days,” said Akhbari, who looked exhausted and had bloodshot eyes. “They took my money,” he said, referring to payments to smugglers and an incident in eastern Turkey when he said he was robbed. “I have nothing now.” Elsewhere, some 50 people at a German shelter for asylum seekers engaged in a violent brawl overnight, hurling chairs and beating each other with table legs, leaving six people injured, police said Saturday.

The punch-up, which took place in the northern town of Itzehoe, was the latest illustration of the rising tensions between refugees at the country’s overstretched reception centres. The dispute broke out during the evening meal on Friday when an Arabic-speaking refugee insulted a group of Kurds, a police statement said. The confrontation quickly escalated, drawing in around 50 people who threw tables, chairs and benches and beat each other with table legs. Security guards tried to break up by fight by using pepper spray and around 50 police and six dogs were called in as backup. Four asylum seekers were treated for head injuries and two security guards sustained light injuries, the statement said.

Two young Kurds — one Syrian and one Iraqi — as well as a Syrian were arrested after being singled out as the main instigators, with police saying they would be transferred to “other centres around the country”. Such incidents have multiplied at refugee centres across Germany, which is expecting to receive up to a million asylum requests by the end of the year and is struggling to accommodate everyone. In related news, some 130 migrants, most believed to be from Syria, were discovered Saturday in a refrigerated truck on the Bulgarian border with Turkey, Bulgaria’s interior ministry said, adding that the lorry driver had been arrested.

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