November 4, 2015 / 8:49 AM / 2 years ago

Helicopters winch Lebanese, Syrian migrants from sea off Cyprus

ATHENS (Reuters) - Twenty-six people thought to be Lebanese and Syrian were winched to safety by helicopters off Cyprus in an overnight operation when their sailboat began to sink in rough seas, authorities said.

Radars picked up a distress signal from the boat sailing off the island's south-eastern tip, which is prone to very strong sea currents. Police said a number of passengers required medical treatment for hypothermia.

"The occupants of the sailboat said they had set off from Lebanon," a police spokesman said.

Media reports suggested they were attempting to reach Greece, the primary gateway to the European Union for close to 600,000 migrants and refugees fleeing war this year.

Cyprus is the closest EU member state to the Middle East, but has seen none of the mass influx of arrivals of its EU border counterparts, with most arriving on the island by accident.

The island is not a member of the border-free Schengen area and grants asylum requests very sparingly, according to non-governmental organizations.

About 115 migrants from Syria arrived on a British base in southern Cyprus in mid-October, but Britain has been at pains to emphasize that the territory is not a 'back door' way into the UK. Migrants protested against their living conditions at the base on Sunday, media reports said.

Reporting by Michele Kambas; Editing by Hugh Lawson

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