Riviera refugee boat sinks while being towed to port

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The Independent Online

The aging freighter that smuggled 908 refugees onto the French Riviera over the weekend sank off its sunny beaches today, although officials said the sunken vessel would not cause environmental damage to the pristine coast.

The aging freighter that smuggled 908 refugees onto the French Riviera over the weekend sank off its sunny beaches today, although officials said the sunken vessel would not cause environmental damage to the pristine coast.

The East Sea, a Cambodian-registered freighter filled up with sea water and sank to depths of 1,000m about 15 kilometers off the chic resort city of Cannes as it was being tugged to a harbour in the nearby port of Toulon. Police had hoped to search the vessel there.

The freighter began to fill up with water as it was being tugged off craggy Boulouris beach, where it ran aground and likely incurred damage to its hull. Once the vessel was being towed to Toulon, officials realized they would not be able to pump the water out fast enough and then decided to tow it to an area free of ship traffic so it would not pose a navigational hazard, according to Francois Villat, a local maritime spokesman.

He also said there was little chance that any fuel from the vessel would do permanent damage to the environment.

"If there's a leak, it's a product that evaporates very quickly," Villat said.

Still, French maritime authorities were to fly over the site on Sunday to evaluate the potential for any environmental damage.

About 150 Red Cross officials were dispatched to a military facility where the refugees were given temporary shelter. Eric Painsec, head of aid operations for the French Red Cross, said most of the people were in satisfactory health, although many were suffering from fatigue after the weeklong voyage.

"Some of them are very weak because they have not eaten for several days," he said.

France was caught off guard yesterday when the freighter carrying mostly Iraqi Kurd refugees, including 300 children, ran aground in the early morning darkness. It was France's first experience with such a mass wave of illegal immigrants, and soon afterward, politicians began squabbling about what to do.

Former Interior Minister Charles Pasqua called for the refugees to be immediately repatriated to "where they came from," he said.

"If we accept them on our territory, we will open the floodgates," the conservative politician said.

Southern France, particularly the posh Riviera, is not usually a stop-off point for international smugglers. However, immigrants fleeing impoverished or troubled countries increasingly are paying for illegal passage aboard ships bound for Western Europe.

Every year, dozens of migrants drown off the coasts of Italy and Spain trying to cross from the Balkans or northern Africa.

In Italy earlier this month, six badly dehydrated Turkish Kurds were rescued after spending a week in a sealed freight container that had been loaded onto a truck bound for Germany.

The growing smuggling problem came to Europe's attention in June when authorities in Dover found the bodies of 58 Chinese migrants who suffocated in the back of an airtight truck during a ferry crossing from the Netherlands.

The man suspected of organizing the Dover trip is among some 400 suspected smugglers arrested over the past year in China. Nearly 100 people were jailed for immigrant smuggling, the Beijing Morning Post reported earlier this month.

The passengers of the East Sea paid between $1,500 and $4,200 for the journey. Labour Minister Elisabeth Guigou said the passengers left home two months ago, passing through Turkey on route to Europe. Three babies were born during the voyage.

Police and maritime officials were searching for the captain and crew, who were believed to be Greek, as well as the ship's Syrian owner. All are believed to have fled when the vessel ran aground.

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