Fishing boat with 300 migrants stranded off Cyprus
Fishing boat with 300 migrants stranded off Cyprus

Cyprus has started a rescue operation after a small fishing boat carrying more than 300 migrants, thought to be Syrian refugees, was spotted off the island's west coast.

A Cypriot defence ministry spokeswoman, Elena Fysentzou, said the boat, loaded mostly with hundreds of women and children, was seen 55 nautical miles (100 km) south of the resort town of Paphos. She added that the boat, which sent an SOS signal as it was caught in rough seas, is believed to have embarked from Syria.

Helicopters are at the scene and a search and rescue operation was under way with coastguards, a cruise boat and a tanker on site, according to Fysentzou.

Thousands of migrants fleeing conflicts in the Middle East have set sail to the Mediterranean in unsafe boats looking for refuge in Europe.

In the latest tragedy, 500 migrants were deliberately drowned by smugglers off the coast of Malta.