By Timour Azhari and Laila Bassam
TRIPOLI, Lebanon (Reuters) – At least 76 people died when the migrant boat they were aboard sank off the Syrian coast after sailing from Lebanon this week, the Lebanese transport minister said, as search operations continued on Friday.
It marks the deadliest such voyage yet from Lebanon, where mounting economic desperation has led many to board often rickety and overcrowded boats in the hope of reaching Europe.
Syrian authorities began finding bodies off the coast of Tartus on Thursday afternoon. The Syrian transport ministry has quoted survivors as saying the boat left from Lebanon's northern Minyeh region on Tuesday with between 120 and 150 people onboard, bound for Europe.
There were reported to be around 45 children on the boat, none of whom had survived, Lebanese transport minister Ali Hamiye said, though he could not confirm the number.
The family of Mustafa Misto, a Lebanese man who was on the boat with his wife and three young children, were accepting condolences at their apartment in the impoverished Bab Al-Ramel neighbourhood of the northern city of Tripoli.
"We have no one but God," an elderly relative cried as mourners paid their respects.
People who feared their relatives were among the dead gathered at the border crossing with Syria, awaiting the bodies.
Dozens of people on the boat came from the Nahr al-Bared camp for Palestinian refugees near Tripoli, Mahmoud Abu Heid, a camp resident said. Already difficult living conditions for Palestinians had worsened during the economic crisis that has devastated Lebanon for the last three years, he added.
Hamiye said 20 survivors were being treated in Syrian hospitals, the bulk of them Syrians – around 1 million of whom live in Lebanon as refugees.
Hamiye said the boat was "very small" and made of wood, describing such sailings as an almost daily occurrence organised by people who did not care for safety.
The spate of such voyages has been fuelled by Lebanon's financial collapse in the last three years – one of the worst ever recorded globally. Poverty rates have sky-rocketed among the population of some 6.5 million.
Cyprus scrambled search and rescue crews late on Monday and Tuesday when in the space of hours two vessels carrying migrants from Lebanon put out distress signals; there were 300 in one vessel, 177 in the other. In those cases, all on board were rescued, the island's Joint Rescue Coordination Center said.
The number of people who have left or tried to leave Lebanon by sea nearly doubled in 2021 from 2020, the United Nations refugee agency told Reuters earlier this month.
It rose again by more than 70% in 2022 compared with the same period last year.
In April, a migrant boat that set off from near Tripoli sank during an interception by the Lebanese navy off the coast.
About 80 Lebanese, Syrian and Palestinian migrants were on board, of whom some 40 were rescued, seven were confirmed dead and around 30 officially remain missing.
(Additional reporting by Tom Perry in Beirut, Kinda Makieh in Damascus, and Michele Kambas in Nicosia; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Alex Richardson, Kim Coghill, Frances Kerry and David Gregorio)
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