ATHENS, Greece — A dilapidated fishing boat crammed with hundreds of migrants that lost its steering and had been drifting in the wind-lashed Mediterranean Sea south of the Greek island of Crete was successfully towed to port Tuesday, Greek authorities said.
Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi said there were approximately 400 people on the vessel, down from his earlier estimate of 500. He said it was not immediately clear where it had sailed from.
In a letter later Tuesday to the European Commission, Mitarachi requested that the migrants be relocated to other European Union nations in solidarity with Greece.
"We ask the Commission to immediately undertake and coordinate a relocation initiative in response to this (rescue) operation, ensuring the responsibility in saving lives at sea is fairly shared among" EU members, he wrote.
In the letter, which was made public by the Migration Ministry, Mitarachi also said EU countries such as Greece, where many migrants first arrive before proceeding to wealthier members of the bloc, "cannot be expected to shoulder an ever-increasing burden out of proportion to their respective capacities."
"Europe must prove that it is in a position to provide immediate and tangible solidarity," by moving new arrivals to other EU countries faster and in greater numbers than it has done so far, he said.
Greece will provide immediate relief for the passengers rescued Tuesday, Mitarachi said.
The coast guard launched the major rescue operation overnight after receiving a distress call from what Mitarachi in his letter described as a 30-meter (98-foot) fishing vessel. A Greek navy frigate, a tanker, two cargo ships and two Italian fishing vessels participated but were unable to transfer passengers from the vessel due to the bad weather.
Shipping Minister Giannis Plakiotakis, who is in charge of the coast guard, described the rescue effort as the largest in the Mediterranean in recent years. He congratulated the coast guard for successfully carrying out the operation despite tough weather conditions.
The fishing boat was towed to the port of Palaiochora in southeastern Crete. There were no immediate reports of any injuries or missing people.
Tens of thousands of people fleeing conflict and poverty in the Middle East, Asia and Africa try to make their way into the European Union each year via perilous sea journeys.