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Migrant crisis: 34 dead in boat sinking, Greece seeks more help

At least 34 migrants seeking a better life in Europe drowned Sunday as they attempted a wind-swept sea crossing from Turkey to Greece, while a record number of asylum seekers reached Hungary's border with Serbia just two days before the government vows to make its southern frontier more difficult to cross.

world Updated: Sep 14, 2015 10:16 IST
EU migrant crisis

Refugees and migrants arrive on a dinghy on the Greek island of Lesbos. (Reuters Photo)

The mounting refugee crisis in Europe has taken another heavy toll, when an overcrowded boat capsized in high winds off a Greeek island on Sunday. The latest migrant tragedy at sea has claimed at least 34 people, 15 of which are babies and children.

Defending its handling of the crisis in Europe, Athens has appealed for more help.

Four babies and 11 young children -- six boys and five girls -- were among those on the stricken wooden boat when it sank off the island of Farmakonisi.

Officials said 68 others were rescued while 30 more swam to the barely populated island. Coast guard officials said the boat may have been toppled in part because of wind gusts exceeding 50 kmph (30 mph).

Sunday's tragedy came just a day after two other boats capsized and at least five people - four children and a 20-year-old man - were presumed drowned. The coast guard said they still were searching for those bodies.

Read|Hungarian migrant trek a wake up call for Europe: Austrian FM

In Hungary, army engineers crowned the top of the planned 174km (109-mile) border fence with razor wire as the government warned that, from Tuesday onward, any asylum seekers caught breaking through the barrier would be arrested and charged with a criminal offense. Police said 4,330 were detected crossing in the previous 24 hours, more than 700 higher than the previous one-day record, as trekkers strove to reach Hungary before the tougher security measures take effect.

This year, more than 175,000 have passed through Hungary from Serbia en route to Western Europe, and the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban says it's determined to make Hungary a more difficult challenge, with deployments of troops and potential prison terms part of the deterrent.

Hungary's lawmakers have not voted yet on whether to back government plans to deploy more than 3,000 troops in support of border police, but dozens of soldiers already were patrolling the fence Sunday. Some drove along the dirt track beside the fence in jeeps while others patrolled on foot with attack dogs.

While many migrants viewed the military presence with suspicion, they were able to walk through a gap in the fence without being challenged. All soldiers appeared to be armed with assault rifles.

Read:Pro-migrant protests in Europe, Hungary says EU in 'dream world'

'We must mourn but also act'

Interim Greek Prime Minister Vassiliki Thanou on Sunday branded criticism of Greece, which has been on the frontline of the surge of migrants trying to reach Europe, as "unacceptable".

"Greece is strictly applying European and international treaties without ignoring the humanity of the situation," she said on a visit to Lesbos, an island which has been struggling with the massive influx. German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Saturday called on Athens, already grappling with a deep economic crisis, to make more effort to protect the EU's external borders.

"We have a second external border, that's between Greece and Turkey, where we need protection. And this protection is at the moment not being guaranteed," she said. "Greece needs to take its responsibility... we will also speak with Turkey."

But Greece's leftist Syriza party, bidding for re-election in next Sunday's vote, called for external help in dealing with the crisis.

"We should mourn but also act," it said in a statement, describing the massive influx of refugees as a wider European and global problem. "Our country is, because of its geographic position, a gateway and it needs support, funds and infrastructure in order to help these desperate people, as it must do."

Marine minister Christos Zois also issued a statement to highlight the "daily superhuman struggle" of the Greek costguard to "save thousands of people, victims of human smugglers".