Tracking data suggests an overcrowded fishing boat that sank off the Greek coast last week with the feared loss of hundreds of lives had not moved for several hours before it capsized, contradicting accounts from the Hellenic coastguard.

As Pakistani police said on Monday they believed up to 800 people were onboard, a Guardian analysis of ship movements supplied by the MariTrace service indicated two vessels – the Lucky Sailor and the Faithful Warrior – stood by or circled round the stationary trawler for at least four hours.


The coastguard has said it was in contact with the boat throughout that period – from about 3pm to 7pm on Tuesday – by radio, satphone and helicopter and that the vessel was not in difficulty, but moving “at a steady course and speed” towards Italy.

The trawler began rocking, then listed and sank in international waters off the west coast of Greece shortly after 2am on Wednesday. Authorities have said 104 people were rescued and 78 bodies recovered. A search and rescue operation continues.

Citing survivors, suspects and bereaved families, an initial police investigation in Pakistan, where some of those onboard were from, found that 750 to 800 people had been on the vessel. Other witness accounts have put the number at between 400 and 750.


The UN’s human rights agency has said up to 500 people are still missing, making the sinking potentially the second deadliest refugee and migrant shipwreck after the April 2015 capsizing of another vessel on the Libya-Italy route that killed up to 1,100 people.

The UN has called for an investigation into Greece’s handling of the disaster amid claims the coastguard should have intervened earlier to prevent it. Greek authorities have rejected claims the boat sank after an attempt was made to tow it.

Coastguard and government officials have defended the decision not to step in sooner to save the rusting steel trawler, which left eastern Libya on 9 June carrying men, women and children from Syria, Egypt, the Palestinian territories and Pakistan.

A full-scale rescue attempt was not possible, they said, because the people on the boat repeatedly refused assistance and were not in danger. Any kind of forcible intervention could have caused the badly overloaded boat to capsize, they said.

The coastguard has said that the trawler was moving forward more or less steadily until minutes before it sank. Activists, however, say people onboard were clearly in danger and making frequent pleas for help more than 15 hours before the boat sank.

International maritime law experts have said conditions on the trawler, some of whose passengers were reportedly ill and which was supplied with water and food by at least one passing merchant ship, meant the people onboard were clearly at risk.

The state of the vessel and its passengers should have prompted an immediate rescue operation, regardless of what the people onboard may have said, legal experts argue.

The captain of a Greek coastguard vessel that finally reached the trawler less than three hours before it sank has testified to investigating authorities that the passengers refused any help whatsoever, Greek media have reported.

He said when the coastguard boat tied a rope to the trawler’s bow after it stopped moving just before midnight on Tuesday, some passengers cried: “No help” and “Go Italy”, untied the rope, and restarted the engine – which stopped again at 1.40am.

The Guardian analysis substantiates a BBC report based on tracking data supplied by another maritime analytics platform, MarineTraffic, which also indicates the fishing trawler was stationary and clearly not advancing for up to seven hours.

Nine survivors from the shipwreck, all Egyptian men aged between 20 and 40 and accused of people-smuggling and other offences, pleaded not guilty in court on Monday, with a lawyer for one of them saying his client had been a passenger.

The court in Kalamata postponed the hearing until Tuesday to provide them and their lawyers with time to review the testimonies of the suspects, who were reportedly identified as members of a smuggling ring by some of the survivors.

They face charges of participating in a criminal organisation, causing a shipwreck and endangering lives. In a separate incident on Monday, the coastguard said 68 people were rescued in the eastern Aegean after the yacht they were on sent a distress signal.

The boat, believed to have set sail from Turkey, issued a distress call early on Monday. Its passengers were initially picked up by two Russian vessels before being transferred to a coastguard boat and taken to the nearby island of Leros.

In Pakistan, authorities in Islamabad said they had arrested 14 suspects in connection with alleged human trafficking related to last week’s shipwreck, and police added that they were searching for more suspects.

A statement from the office of the prime minister, Shehbaz Sharif, said a high-level inquiry had been ordered into the network believed to be involved. Flags were flown at half-mast after Monday was declared a day of national mourning.


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