Nearly 50 Bangladeshi migrant workers evacuated by sea from Libya to the Greek island of Crete jumped ship during the night, Greek authorities said Sunday, apparently to avoid being sent back to Bangladesh. Three died, 11 remained missing and many others were hospitalized.
Nearly a dozen Greek Coast Guard and Navy vessels, a military helicopter and fishing boats were scouring the waters off the coast of Crete in search of the missing, the Merchant Marine Ministry said.
The 49 evacuees had been on board the Ionian King, which docked late Saturday in the port of Souda after sailing from Tripoli with 1,288 evacuees from Libya, most of them Bangladeshi nationals.
The men used a rope to lower themselves from the Cypriot-flagged ship into the sea during the night, the ministry said, in an apparent attempt to avoid being sent home after arriving in Crete.
Authorities have not said why they think the men jumped, but they may have been trying to avoid being quickly sent back to Bangladesh. Tens of thousands of migrants seeking a better life cross illegally into the European Union through Greece every year.
Ships have been ferrying thousands of evacuees from Libya to Crete, with Chinese workers among the first to arrive on the island in recent days aboard chartered ships.
The Ionian King and another ship, the Nissos Rhodes, were the latest arrivals, both carrying mostly migrant workers from Bangladesh fleeing the fighting in Libya between the regime of Moammar Gadhafi and rebels seeking to topple him.
Local residents alerted authorities after seeing people in the water and on a beach near Souda in the early hours of Sunday, and the Coast Guard initially found 29 men. Four were treated in the nearby Naval Hospital, while the other 25 were taken to a hospital in the city of Chania, mostly suffering from hypothermia the ministry said. One died on the way to the hospital, while authorities found the bodies of two more men in the water.
A further seven people were found alive by early Sunday afternoon, the ministry said.
Libya's borders have been flooded by people trying to escape the escalating fighting.
Crete, where a U.S. base is also located at Souda Bay, has also seen hundreds of U.S. Marines arrive as part of a military building around Libya. The amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge and the USS Ponce left Souda Bay Saturday, a day after docking in the area.
The United States has said it wants embattled Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi to step down and has not ruled out imposing a no-fly zone over Libya.
Associated Press writer Demetris Nellas contributed to this report.