At least 37 dead, including children, as migrant boat sinks off Turkey

Ayvacik (Turkey) (AFP) - The Turkish coastguard on Saturday recovered the bodies of women and children washed up on a beach after yet another migrant boat sank while trying to reach Europe, leaving at least 37 dead.

In harrowing scenes reminiscent of the death of Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler photographed lying dead on a Turkish beach in September, the body of a small child could be seen among those strewn over a beach near the town of Ayvacik in northwestern Canakkale province, an AFP photographer at the scene said.

An AFP picture showed the dead child dressed in dark trousers and a blue top, face covered with a small hat. A pacifier lay close to the body. In another image, a Turkish gendarme was seen lowering the corpse of an older child into a body bag.

Another young child was found dead in the water, according to the AFP photographer.

An unknown number of other children also drowned after the boat ferrying them and their families -- some from Syria, others from Afghanistan and Myanmar -- to the nearby Greek island of Lesbos sank just off the Turkish coast.

The fatalities came as German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she expected most of the refugees being taken in by Germany from Syria and Iraq to return home once peace has returned to their countries.

Merkel has faced strong pressure over her welcoming stance towards asylum seekers.

"We expect that once peace has returned to Syria, once the Islamic State (group) has been defeated in Iraq, that they will return to their countries of origin, armed with the knowledge they acquired with us," Merkel was quoted as saying by the DPA news agency.

She cited the refugees from former Yugoslavia as an example, saying that 70 percent of those who arrived in Germany in the 1990s returned home once it was safe to do so.

Elsewhere on Saturday, Swedish police said dozens of masked men believed to belong to neo-Nazi gangs had gathered in Stockholm late on Friday and handed out leaflets calling for attacks against young migrants.

Police had beefed up their presence in the city centre, deploying anti-riot and helicopter units after learning that extremists were planning "aggression on unaccompanied migrant minors" in the city.

- 50 metres from the shore -

The migrant deaths off Turkey follow another incident two days ago in which 25 migrants, including 10 children, drowned off the Greek island of Samos.

A Turkish official contacted by AFP said the Turkish coastguard recovered 37 bodies from the scene of the latest tragedy including children. In an earlier statement the Turkish coastguard said 75 people had been rescued.

AFP's photographer counted at least 19 bodies.

"We are sad. At least 20 friends are still missing," a weeping woman who was among the survivors said.

The capsized boat was visible around 50 metres (yards) from the shore, where divers from the coastguard were still searching for the missing. Military police in green berets placed bodies in bags to be taken to a morgue.

Life jackets and other refugees' belongings were seen dotted across the beach.

The drownings continue a grim trend that accelerated last year when nearly 4,000 people died trying to reach Europe by sea, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

During the first 28 days of 2016, a further 244 migrants died at sea, with at least a dozen more dying on land, the IOM said Friday.

Turkey, which is hosting at least 2.5 million refugees from Syria's civil war, has become the main launchpad for migrants fleeing war, persecution and poverty to Europe.

The Turkish government struck a deal with the EU in November to halt the outflow of refugees, in return for 3 billion euros ($3.2 billion) in financial assistance, but the agreement has failed to check the migrant tide.

Merkel said Friday that with 2,000 new asylum seekers entering the Balkans on their journey to northern Europe every day the EU "urgently" needed to implement its side of the agreement.

Italy has however questioned how much of the money should come from the EU budget, and how much control the bloc will have over how Ankara spends the funds.

Turkey's minister for EU affairs Volkan Bozkir Saturday dismissed any problems with Italy about the release of the EU money and said the funds would be released in February.