Syria refugees leave cruise liner after Cyprus standoff

Syria refugees leave cruise liner after Cyprus standoff

Limassol (Cyprus) (AFP) - Hundreds of mostly Syrian refugees rescued by a cruise liner in the Mediterranean agreed to disembark in Cyprus on Friday after a standoff triggered by their demand to go to Italy.

A total of 345 migrants were plucked by the Salamis Filoxenia from a trawler in rough seas off the coast of Cyprus on Thursday.

About 700 cruise passengers disembarked from the Salamis Cruise Lines vessel at the port of Limassol, police said, but only 65 of those rescued initially left the ship on Thursday.

The situation was resolved shortly before dawn on Friday after hours of negotiations, said interior ministry official Marinos Papadopoulos.

"Everything went calmly," he said.

Medical and government teams were on hand to assist the refugees at the port, where camp beds were set up for them.

They were "all in good health", said Limassol harbour master George Ppouros.

Buses then ferried the refugees to a recently opened camp for migrants and asylum seekers not far from the capital Nicosia.

The refugees are staying in tents at the camp, which is equipped with bathrooms and kitchens, Cyprus Red Cross director Takis Neophytou told AFP.

"According to our government they are not considered as illegal. They are free to go," said Neophytou, adding that some of the refugees had relatives in Cyprus.

He said the Red Cross was providing food, clothes and toys for the children, while some refugees were asking for mobile phone chargers.

- Women and babies -

The Red Cross official said the refugees had come from Syria and had paid $5,000 each (3,900 euros) for a passage to Italy.

"But the captain (of the trawler) abandoned them in the middle of the ocean (and) a heavy storm. They were left on their own on the boat," said Neophytou.

He said there were 60 women and 52 children among the refugees.

The cruise ship answered a distress signal from the trawler some 50 nautical miles off Cyprus, the defence ministry said.

A passenger from the liner said she had heard the refugees had been at sea for three days.

"The captain of their boat made a phone call and a speedboat came and took the captain," said Chrystalla Eflatsoumis, 66.

She said there were "many pregnant women and 20 babies".

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, said Kikis Vassiliou of Salamis Cruise lines.

From Limassol the boat was to set sail again to the Israeli port of Haifa, where some 300 Russian tourists were expected to disembark.

But its Thursday evening scheduled departure was delayed as the refugees initially refused to disembark and demanded to be taken to Italy.

The standoff was resolved after "very, very long negotiations" involving Cyprus authorities, the Red Cross, the civil defence, the owners of the liner and the Russian embassy, said Neophytou.

Vassiliou said the delay had inflicted losses of several hundred thousands of euros on his company.

- Deaths at sea -

The island of Cyprus is about 100 kilometres (62 miles) from Syria although it has not seen a major influx of refugees fleeing the conflict there.

But 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.

In March, Amnesty International criticised Cyprus for its "shameful" treatment of migrants and asylum-seekers, saying they were being detained in prison-like conditions awaiting deportation.

In 2013 Cyprus was found to have violated the European Convention on Human Rights for attempting to expel a Syrian without the right to a fair legal hearing.

Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades told the UN General Assembly on Friday that his government provided "humanitarian aid and facilitates aid when deemed necessary".

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