At least 94 dead after Lebanon migrant boat sinks

Lebanese Army says one suspect arrested over ill-fated smuggling attempt

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The death toll from the sinking of a migrant boat off the Syrian coast after it sailed from Lebanon rose to 94 on Saturday, Syrian state media reported.

It is the deadliest such incident after attempts to reach Europe illegally by sea became more common with the onset of Lebanon's severe economic crisis in 2019, which has left most of the population impoverished.

The Lebanese Army said on Saturday that the Intelligence Directorate had arrested a smuggler, identified as “BD”, who admitted to being involved in sending out the boat.

It said the vessel set sail for Italy on Wednesday and sank the following day.

The suspect was part of a gang smuggling migrants from northern Lebanon and the other members were being tracked down, the army said.

The boat departed from Miniyeh, a town just north of Lebanon's second city of Tripoli with a reputation for people smuggling.

At least 120 Lebanese, Syrians and Palestinians were believed to have been on board, including elderly people and children.

Bodies began appearing on the shores of the Syrian city of Tartus and its surrounds on Thursday afternoon. It is not clear why the vessel sank.

Syria's Sana news agency said 14 of the 20 survivors admitted to a hospital in Tartus remained in hospital on Saturday, including two in intensive care.

The survivors included 12 Syrians, five Lebanese and three Palestinians, Lebanese Transport Minister Ali Hamie said.

Lebanon has become a launching pad for illegal migration attempts since 2019.

Syrian and Palestinian refugees seeking asylum in Europe typically make up most of the people setting sail from the Mediterranean country, although the number of Lebanese attempting the journey has increased as the economic situation worsened.

The smuggler-operated boats are usually overcrowded, and often get lost at sea for days after trying to evade or escape patrols.

About one million Syrians live in Lebanon as refugees, while the UN estimates there are nearly 500,000 registered Palestinian refugees.

Relatives mourn over a body recovered after a migrant boat sank off the coast of Syria, as an ambulance takes them back to Lebanon through the Arida border crossing. AFP

On Friday, the families of the victims began crossing from Lebanon into Syria to identify their loved ones and collect their bodies.

Relatives and friends of the boat's occupants, including dozens of residents from the Palestinian camp of Nahr Al Bared near Tripoli, gathered at the Arida border crossing to await the bodies.

About 20 people aboard the boat came from the camp, said a resident who identified himself as Abu Hajjal.

A procession of cars and motorcycles followed the ambulances as they streamed through the border from Syria on Friday night.

Taxi driver Mustafa Misto and his three children, from the Bab Al Ramel neighbourhood of Tripoli, were among those who drowned.

His relatives held a wake for them in his family home.

“My heart is burning,” his sister Donia said. “They're all gone.”

“He wanted to go for the sake of his children and now look what's happened — they're all gone. May God burn the hearts of those who smuggled them just like my own heart is burning.”

Ghassan Dandashi, a taxi driver who was one of those who attended a prayer for Misto and his children at the local mosque, said he understood why people would undertake such a trip.

“Our leaders don't do anything for us and the situation here is so bad,” he said. “I would do it too if I could afford the trip. Anyone in their right mind would leave.”

In April, a migrant boat that set off from near Tripoli sank during an incident with the Lebanese Navy off the country's coast.

About 80 Lebanese, Syrian and Palestinian migrants were on board, of whom about 40 were rescued, seven were confirmed dead and about 30 are still officially listed as missing.

Updated: September 26, 2022, 1:37 PM
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