Greece searches for migrants missing off island of Lesbos

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ATHENS (Reuters) - A search and rescue operation was under way off the Greek island of Lesbos on Friday after migrants who came ashore reported three people missing after falling out of an overcrowded inflatable raft, the coast guard said.

Twenty-four people reached the island and a search operation was under way with the assistance of coast guard vessels and a helicopter, a coast guard official told Reuters.

"We spotted the migrants when they disembarked from the boat in Lesbos island. According to them three people fell from the boat while they were crossing the sea to reach Greece," the official said.

Sea crossings on overcrowded boats are often hazardous and earlier in the month, the Greek coast guard found the body of a migrant near a half-sunken vessel on Lesbos. In September, at least three people drowned when a boat carrying migrants sank off the island of Crete.

Hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees used Greece as the main gateway to Europe through Turkey in 2015 and 2016, until a deal between Ankara and the European Union reduced the flow across the Greek and Turkish land and sea borders.

Turkey hosts more than three million refugees and migrants, while tens of thousands of asylum seekers are still in Greece waiting for their applications to be processed, mostly housed in camps where conditions have been described as dire.

(Reporting by Lefteris Papadimas; Editing by Nick Macfie)