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A paramilitary boat searches for people in Lake Van, in eastern Turkey, July 1, 2020.

The Associated Press

Up to 60 migrants may have been trapped in a boat that sank in an eastern lake last week, Turkey’s interior minister said Wednesday.

Turkey launched a search-and-rescue mission involving helicopters and boats after the boat carrying migrants across Lake Van was reported missing on June 27. So far, search teams have recovered six bodies.

Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu, who travelled to Van to oversee the rescue operation, told reporters Wednesday that authorities estimated the boat was carrying between 55 and 60 migrants when it went down in stormy weather.

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Eleven other people were detained in connection with the tragedy, he said. A village administrator has been removed from office for delaying reporting the incident, he added.

Soylu said experts think the sunken boat is under 110-120 metres (360-394 feet) of water. An underwater imaging system was dispatched from Ankara to locate the wreck, he added.

HaberTurk television said the migrants are believed to be from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran.

Last year, seven migrants drowned while 64 others were rescued when their boat capsized in the lake, which is close to the border with Iran but lies within Turkey’s borders.

The lake is situated along a major transit route for migrants coming from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia. They are typically smuggled across mountains on the Iran-Turkey border and then continue travelling on through Turkey.

However, Turkish authorities have intensified immigration controls near the Iranian border, and some smugglers transport migrants across Lake Van s to avoid several police and military checkpoints between the provinces of Van and Bitlis.

Turkey, which hosts about 3.7 million Syrian refugees, is a main crossing point for migrants trying to reach Europe.

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Soylu said Turkey had detained 454,000 migrants last year. This year, Turkish authorities prevented some 16,000 migrants from reaching Turkey through the Turkey-Iran border and detained 4,500 others who managed to cross into Van province.

Earlier this year, thousands of migrants arrived at Turkey’s border with Greece trying to cross illegally after Turkey made good on a threat to open its borders for those seeking to cross into Europe. The move triggered days of violent clashes between the migrants and Greek border authorities.

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