IERAPETRA, Greece — Local authorities and Red Cross volunteers on Crete were racing Wednesday to prepare shelter and food for hundreds of immigrants on a crippled freighter being slowly towed to safety by a Greek navy frigate, a rescue effort hampered by gale-force winds and high waves.
A day after it suffered engine failure in international waters, the 77-meter (250-foot) Baris cargo ship carrying some 700 men, women and children trying to enter Europe clandestinely — one of the largest boatloads of the kind in recent years — was being towed at a speed of about three knots (3.4 miles per hour).
By midday Wednesday it had covered about a third of the way, and was expected to arrive well after nightfall at the port town of Ierapetra in southern Crete.
The coast guard said initial indications suggested passengers included Syrians and Afghans heading for Italy. It was unclear where the Kiribati-flagged ship had set sail from, or when.
About 80 percent of immigrants arriving by sea at Greece's eastern Aegean Sea islands are Syrians fleeing the country's civil war, according to the Doctors Without Borders humanitarian organization's Greek branch.
Tens of thousands of people risk the hazardous journey every year, paying smuggling gangs to carry them over in usually unseaworthy craft ranging from toy dinghies to aging rust-buckets. Most end up in Italy.
According to Amnesty International data, since the start of 2014 more than 2,500 people have drowned or gone missing — about 1.7 percent of the estimated 150,000 who made it across.
Ierapetra local authorities and volunteer groups were preparing an indoor basketball stadium to provide temporary shelter for the migrants, and were collecting food, blankets, mattresses and toiletries.
"Our main concern is to offer them preliminary care, to register them and to find, as soon as possible, somewhere for them to stay under the best conditions possible," said Red Cross volunteer organizer Nikos Nestorakis.
The Baris lost engine power Tuesday about 30 nautical miles off the southeastern tip of Crete.
Greek officials said Wednesday there were no reports of severe health problems or food and water shortages on board. A pregnant woman was airlifted by helicopter to an island hospital.
Once near the Cretan coast, the vessel was expected to anchor offshore but it was unclear if the migrants would be immediately ferried to land.
Just days before the freighter ran into trouble, 228 Syrian refugees heading for Italy were rescued from a crippled ship off Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean.
EU regulations stipulate that refugees seeking asylum must apply in the first EU country they arrive at.
Bishr El-touni contributed to this report.