U.S. ships head towards migrant vessel in distress off Greece

ATHENS Mon Oct 28, 2013 2:54pm EDT

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ATHENS (Reuters) - The U.S. navy on Monday sent two guided missile destroyers to help a boat apparently carrying migrants and in distress off southern Greece.

No details of the operation were immediately available but a Greek defense official said a commercial vessel had reported sighting a migrant vessel in international waters, heading towards Italy, about 116 nautical miles off the coast of Kalamata.

The sighting came as southern Europe grapples with a crisis that has seen hundreds of migrants from Africa drown this month as they attempted to reach the European Union through southern Italy in rickety boats.

Earlier this month, 128 migrants were rescued by the USS San Antonio, an amphibious transport ship, and transferred to Maltese vessels.

"At the request of the Greek government, USS Gravely and USS Ramage are making best speed in an effort to render assistance to distressed persons at sea," the statement by the U.S. naval command said.

The Greek official denied any request had been made for U.S. assistance.

More than 32,000 migrants have arrived in southern Europe from Africa so far this year, with refugees from the civil war in Syria adding to migrants from sub-Saharan Africa looking for a better life in Europe.

The dangers of the crossing were highlighted in two separate disasters in southern Italy earlier this month when 366 Eritrean migrants drowned in one disaster and around 200 were missing after another boat sank just over a week later.

(Reporting by George Georgiopoulos in Athens and James Mackenzie in Rome; editing by Barry Moody)

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