LIMASSOL, Cyprus (AP) — More than 300 people, apparent refugees fleeing from Syria, refused to leave a cruise ship that rescued them from a small boat stranded off Cyprus, a cruise line official said Thursday.
Salamis Cruise Lines Managing Director Kikis Vasiliou said that the people are insisting that they be taken to Italy instead.
"They want us to send them to Italy," Vasiliou told reporters at the east Mediterranean island's main Limassol port. "The authorities, they have to decide what they want to do."
Vasiliou blamed Cypriot authorities for keeping him in the dark about how they intend to resolve the situation.
Cypriot officials said that the 345 people, including 52 children, were to be taken to a reception center near the capital Nicosia where they would be given shelter and medical attention until authorities determine what will happen to them.
Dozens of civil defense officials, medical staff and police were waiting at dockside to receive the people after the cruise ship had docked. A small group did disembark from the ship to negotiate with authorities, Vasiliou said, but talks broke off with the group returning to the ship.
But several adults holding small children were seen leaving the cruise ship, while one man led away by police in handcuffs.
A man later came on the cruise ship's public address system to urge the group to disembark through an Arabic-speaking interpreter by telling them that authorities would do all they can to send those who met the criteria to other European countries.
The people were packed aboard a small vessel that issued a distress call early Thursday amid rough seas and high winds some 50 nautical miles off Cyprus' southwestern coastal town of Paphos.
The Cypriot Defense Ministry said the boat had "most likely" set sail from Syria loaded with "civilian refugees."
Vasiliou said his company received the request from Cypriot Search and Rescue authorities to assist in the rescue operation Thursday morning while the cruise ship was returning to Cyprus from the Greek islands.
But he said the unexpected turn of events is costing his company "several hundred thousand" euros after the cancellation of a trip by 300 mainly Russian tourists to Haifa, Israel aboard the cruise ship that was scheduled to depart late Thursday.
Thousands of migrants fleeing conflicts in the Middle East and northern Africa attempt to cross the Mediterranean Sea in rickety boats in search of safe havens in Europe, and hundreds have died at sea.