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Hunt for crew of grounded migrant ship

The passengers are made up of Kurds, mainly from Iraq and Turkey  

SAINT-RAPHAEL, France -- Police are searching for the captain and crew of a ship carrying nearly 1,000 illegal immigrants which ran aground off the French coast.

Police and government officials belive the ship was deliberately grounded 20 metres from the shoreline at Boulouris beach between the southern town of Saint-Raphael and the French Riviera resort of Nice.

More than 900 Kurdish migrants, including hundreds of children were taken off the ship on Saturday, many dehydrated after living in squalor aboard the Cambodian-registered vessel, the East Sea.

The ship, built in 1966, was later towed towards the nearby naval port of Toulon, but sank in shallow waters before reaching the harbour, the local government office said.

"The captain has fled, leaving the boat facing land, the propellers turned, so that the boat cannot drift away. It was professional work," Saint-Raphael mayor Georges Ginestat said.

The boat, carrying 912 refugees, of whom around 200 were children, including three babies born on board, had sailed from Greece, then made a stopover in Turkey.

President Jacques Chirac said France had never witnessed human-trafficking on such a scale.

"These people were transported illegally in unacceptable, unworthy, dangerous and inhuman conditions," he said in a statement. "The international community must react to prevent this sort of situation happening again and to bring those responsible to justice."

Serge Ortis, head of a civil protection agency in the region, said there appeared to be no serious health problems among the refugees.

But he said their general physical condition was "deplorable" as they were forced to remain standing during the voyage in the hold of the vessel, while many may be suffering from malnutrition.

The Kurds, many looking dazed after their harrowing trip, said they had paid more than $4,000 per adult to get to Europe and around $1,700 per child.

"We were down in the holds. You couldn't tell if it was night or day. There wasn't even any room to lie down," one said.

'Human misery'

Regional official Daniel Canepa said he would order military barracks to be made available for the immigrants while they receive treatment.

Chirac said France had never witnessed human-trafficking on such a scale  

"They spent eight days at sea in extremely precarious sanitary conditions," Canepa told France Info radio. "They are tired, they need to rehydrate and certain need treatment, though none have serious injuries.

"They are living on top of one another in horrible conditions, without any hygienic facilities, without being able to wash themselves."

Interior Minister Daniel Vaillant told France Inter radio that the incident showed "to what point we must fight people who exploit human misery, those who run (trafficking) rings."

After the tanker hit the coast at around 3:30 a.m. local time (0230 GMT), around 100 Kurds managed to swim ashore.

A rescue official said he believed the ship had been bound for Italy but had lost its way and hit France instead.

A navy tug was dispatched to the scene to secure the tanker and eventually pull it out to sea.

The scale of the refugee problem in Europe was underlined last year when authorities in the British port of Dover discovered the bodies of 58 Chinese migrants who suffocated in the back of an airtight truck during a ferry crossing from the Netherlands.

European Union ministers agreed earlier this month to speed up moves to harmonise their asylum and immigration policies.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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