Six illegal immigrants drown off Turkey as survivors claim forced off Greek navy ship

ANKARA - Six illegal immigrants drowned, two were missing and 31 others were rescued Tuesday in controversial circumstances off Turkey`s western Aegean coast, officials said.

Initial media reports said the immigrants, believed to have been heading to a nearby Greek island, drowned when their ship sank off Karaburun, in Izmir province.

However, officials -- from both the local government and the coast guard command in Ankara -- quoted the survivors as saying they had been dumped into the sea off the Turkish coast by a Greek vessel.

In their testimony to the police, the immigrants claimed they had reached the Greek island of Chios after a clandestine overnight boat trip but were captured by the Greek authorities, a senior coast guard official told AFP.

They alleged they were then put on a boat early in the morning and left at sea close to the Turkish coast, where local residents alerted the coast guard after hearing their cries, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"The immigrants` claims should be taken with a degree of caution as the investigation is still continuing," the official said, adding that the Turkish authorities had found no ship wreck.

The victims and the survivors included Algerians, Iraqis, Lebanese, Tunisians and Palestinians, according to officials.

Turkey lies on a major human-smuggling route from Asia to Europe and illegal immigrants are detained here almost on a daily basis.

The immigrants mostly try to cross to neighboring Greece by land or brave sea journeys to Greece or Italy, often aboard dangerous, unseaworthy vessels.

09/26/2006 13:23 GMT

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