AHMETBEYLI, Turkey (Reuters) - At least 60 migrants, most of them Palestinian and more than half of them children, died after their overcrowded boat sank just tens of meters off Turkey's western Aegean coast on Thursday, a district official said.
Tahsin Kurtbeyoglu, governor of the coastal district of Menderes in Turkey's western Izmir province, said an initial investigation showed the small vessel sank due to overcrowding around dawn.
Its destination was unclear but the small Turkish town of Ahmetbeyli from where it left is only a few kilometers from the Greek island of Samos. Greece is a common entry point for migrants trying to get into the European Union.
"The latest death toll we have is 60 people, including 11 men, 18 women and 31 children, including three babies," Kurtbeyoglu told Reuters by telephone.
Turkish media said the reason the death toll was so high was because the women and children were in a locked compartment in the lower section of the vessel, although there was no official confirmation of this.
Kurtbeyoglu said 46 people had so far been rescued alive, including the ship's Turkish captain and assistant, who had been placed under arrest. He said there were no bodies left on the boat and he did not expect the death toll to rise any further.
Most of the migrants were Palestinian nationals, and the authorities were still trying to determine the nationality of the others, Kurtbeyoglu said. He said the survivors spoke Arabic and were of Middle Eastern origin.
Turkish media said there were also Syrians and Iraqis on the boat, although that could also not be confirmed.
Turkey is sheltering about 80,000 Syrian refugees near its southeastern border with Syria, several hundred kilometers away on the other side of the country.
Television footage showed small boats and diving teams searching for survivors just off Ahmetbeyli. The boat sank less than 100 meters from the shore after leaving at around 22:30 EDT, officials said.
Turkey's position as a bridge from Asia to Europe, as well as its wealth compared with neighboring states, has long made it both a destination and a transit point for migrants from the Middle East and as far afield as Africa and South Asia.
The Greek island of Samos is clearly visible from Ahmetbeyli, which lies in a popular coastal region frequented by foreign and Turkish holiday makers.
About 130,000 immigrants cross Greece's porous sea and land borders every year, the vast majority via Turkey.
Greece received more than 1,000 migrants by sea last year, according to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR). Another 55,000 crossed the land border between Greece and Turkey at Evros, according to Greek government figures.
Greece opened its first purpose-built detention center for illegal migrants in April, the first of about 50 camps that Greek officials have said will be built by mid-2013.
(Additional reporting and writing by Jonathon Burch in Ankara; Editing by Nick Tattersall and Andrew Heavens)