At least 73 migrants are believed to have dr*wned in the incident while 20 others were rescued after their boat sank off the coast of Syria, after leaving neighboring Lebanon. The d*ath toll from what is Lebanon’s deadliest shipwreck in recent years is set to rise further.

Lebanese Transport Minister Ali Hamieh said Friday (September 23) that more than 100 migrants, mostly Lebanese and Syrians, were on board a small boat that sank in the Mediterranean Sea off the Syrian city of Tartous Thursday. Dozens of people are still missing, the minister added.

Among those rescued, five were Lebanese nationals, he said. The group of migrants left Lebanon, according to the news agency AFP reported, citing information shared by the Syrian government from Thursday. The Syrian authorities reportedly managed to rescue 20 people who were being treated in hospital.

Initially, 15 people are believed to have died; however, this figure had to be revised upwards to 28 and, shortly thereafter, to 34. Several hours into the operation, it became clear that more than 60 bodies had been recovered.

At least one child would have been among the dead, according to AFP. The Lebanese government has warned that the d*ath toll could rise further.

Lebanon hosts more than one million refugees from Syria, who fled the country’s 10-year civil war. It has also been plagued by economic crises for three years, causing an increase in clandestine attempts to leave for the European Union.

Read more: Six Syrian refugees die of dehydration at sea

Research suspended for the moment

A Syrian official said on Thursday that the boat was even carrying up to 150 people, according to the news agency. AFP.

“According to survivors, their boat left Lebanon a few days ago,” Syrian ports chief Samer Kbrasli said, adding that “between 120 and 150 people” were on board before it sank. Efforts to search for survivors were suspended Thursday evening due to dangerously high waves, AFP reported.

The survivors were taken to hospital in Tartous, the southernmost of Syria’s main ports, located about 50 kilometers north of the northern Lebanon port city of Tripoli. The Syrian Health Ministry said in a statement, adding that “oxygen assistance was provided to most of those hospitalized, and some of them were transferred to intensive care.”

The Syrian Transport Ministry said information gathered from survivors suggested the boat had departed from Miniyeh, a town just north of Tripoli.

A family drama

Wissam al-Talawi, from the Akkar region in northern Syria, was among the survivors. His brother said AFP that while he is being treated in hospital, the bodies of Wissam’s two daughters, aged five and nine, were returned to Lebanon where they were buried early Friday, Ahmad said.

“[My brother] couldn’t afford his daily expenses or the cost of enrolling his children in school,” he added, saying Wissam’s wife and two sons were still missing.

Read also : Mediterranean: Boat missing with dozens of Lebanese and Syrian migrants

Peak crossing attempts

Lebanon is in the grip of an economic crisis that began in 2019, and which has plunged three-quarters of its population of around 6 million, including at least one million Syrian refugees, into poverty. Over the past year, Lebanon has seen an increase in the number of people leaving Lebanese shores to attempt the perilous crossing in overcrowded boats to reach Europe.

According to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, almost twice as many people left or attempted to leave Lebanon by boat in 2021 than the previous year. This figure has further increased by more than 70% in 2022 compared to the same period last year, according to the news agency. Reuters reported.

In April, the sinking of an overcrowded migrant boat pursued by the Lebanese navy off the north coast of Tripoli left six people dead and angered many in the country. In August, survivors and families of victims filed a complaint accusing the army of holding two missing survivors.

Most boats departing from Lebanon head to European Union member Cyprus, an island nation about 175 kilometers away. Many of those leaving Lebanon are Syrians, but the ever-worsening economic crisis has prompted increasing numbers of Lebanese nationals to attempt the dangerous crossing as well.

Read more: Cyprus saves hundreds of migrants at sea and plans to disembark in Turkey

With AFP, dpa

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