At least 77 people were killed when a boat carrying migrants sank off Syria this week, the country’s health minister said on Friday, fearing the death toll could be much higher.
The incident was the deadliest as increasing numbers of Lebanese, Syrians and Palestinians attempted to flee crisis-stricken Lebanon by sea for a better future in Europe. Tens of thousands of people have lost their jobs while the Lebanese pound has lost more than 90% of its value, eradicating the purchasing power of thousands of families who now live in extreme poverty.
Syrian authorities said relatives of the victims had started crossing from Lebanon to Syria to help identify their relatives and recover their bodies. The ship left Lebanon on Tuesday and news of what happened began to emerge Thursday afternoon. The boat was carrying Syrians, Lebanese and Palestinians.
Syrian state television quoted Health Minister Mohammed Hassan Ghabbash as saying 20 people had been rescued and were being treated at al-Basel hospital in the Syrian coastal town of Tartous. He added that medical authorities had been on alert since Thursday afternoon to help with search operations.
An al-Basel official, speaking on condition of anonymity in accordance with regulations, told The Associated Press that eight of those rescued were in intensive care. The official also confirmed the 77 deaths. There were conflicting reports about the number of people on board the ship when it sank, with some saying at least 120. Details about the ship, such as its size and capacity, were also unclear.
Lebanese Transport Minister Ali Hamie said the survivors included 12 Syrians, five Lebanese and three Palestinians. Eight bodies were brought back to Lebanon early on Friday, according to Lebanese Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi.
Friday after sunset, the bodies of other victims, including two Palestinians, were brought to Lebanon. They were taken in seven ambulances and headed south from the Arida border post to the northern city of Tripoli.
Earlier in the day, Tartous Governor Abdul-Halim Khalil told pro-government radio Sham FM that the search for more bodies was underway off the coast of his country. Khalil said the boat sank on Wednesday.
The Syrian state news agency, SANA, quoted a port official as saying 31 bodies were washed ashore while the rest were picked up by Syrian boats during a search operation that began Thursday evening.
Wissam Tellawi, one of the survivors treated in al-Basel, lost two daughters. His wife and two sons are still missing. The bodies of his daughters, Mae and Maya, were brought to Lebanon early Friday and buried in their northern hometown of Qarqaf.
“He told me over the phone, ‘I’m fine,’ but the children are lost,” said Tellawi’s father, who identified himself as Abu Mahmoud. The father told local Al-Jadeed TV that his son had given the smugglers the family apartment in exchange for taking him and his family to Europe.
In the aftermath of the disaster, the Lebanese army said troops stormed the homes of several suspected smugglers on Friday, arresting four in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, the second largest and poorest from Lebanon. Three others were detained in the nearby village of Deir Ammar.
The military said the suspects were involved in smuggling migrants by sea while others planned to buy boats for the same reason.
Lebanon, with a population of 6 million, including 1 million Syrian refugees, has been in the grip of a severe economic crisis since the end of 2019 which has plunged more than three quarters of the population into poverty.
For years it was a country that welcomed refugees from wars and conflicts in the Middle East, but the economic crisis, rooted in decades of corruption and mismanagement, has radically changed the situation.
Prices have soared due to hyperinflation, forcing many people to sell their belongings to pay smugglers taking them to Europe as migration has intensified in recent months.
In April, a boat carrying dozens of Lebanese, Syrians and Palestinians trying to migrate by sea to Italy sank more than 5 kilometers from Tripoli, following a clash with the Lebanese navy. Dozens of people were killed in the incident.
On Wednesday, Lebanese officials said naval forces rescued a boat carrying 55 migrants after encountering technical problems about 11 kilometers (7 miles) off the coast of the northern Akkar region. He said those rescued included two pregnant women and two children.