Two children and a woman have died after a smuggling boat sunk off the southern Greek island off Crete.

Greek authorities said a major rescue operation saved 53 others from the sea.

It has yet to be made clear whether anybody was still missing as the survivors were not in a position to give accurate numbers of how many had been on board when the vessel went down.

The Greek coastguard said efforts continued deep into the evening to locate other people who might be in the water.

A person claiming to be a passenger, notified authorities by phone said 16 people were on the vessel that sank 12 miles east of Crete amid high winds on Monday, the coastguard said.

A Greek naval frigate and an air force helicopter took part in the search, together with two coastguard boats and three merchant ships.

There was no indication where the vessel sailed from, how big it was or where it had been heading to.

Greece’s Aegean Sea islands are the destination for thousands of asylum-seekers and migrants from the Middle East, Africa and Asia who cross from the nearby Turkish coast in hopes of finding a better life in the European Union.

But on some occasions, smuggling gangs route yachts south of Crete to head for Italy.

Additional reporting by Associated Press.