73 dead in migrant shipwreck off Syria after leaving Lebanon

DAMASCUS (AP) — At least 73 migrants drowned when a boat they boarded in Lebanon capsized off the coast of Syria, the Syrian health minister said Friday, the deadliest shipwreck in Lebanon in recent years.
Lebanon, which since 2019 has been mired in a financial crisis described by the World Bank as one of the worst in modern times, has become a launching pad for illegal migration, with its own citizens joining Syrian refugees and Palestinians clamoring to leave the country.
Some 150 people, mostly Lebanese and Syrians, were aboard the small boat that capsized Thursday in the Mediterranean Sea off the Syrian city of Tartus.
“The number of victims of the shipwreck reached 73 people,” Syrian Health Minister Hassan al-Ghabash said in a statement, adding that 20 survivors were being treated at Tartus hospital.
Of those rescued, five were Lebanese, Lebanon’s interim transport minister Ali Hamie told AFP.
“I am discussing with the Syrian transport minister a mechanism to recover the bodies from Syria,” Hamie said.
Tartus is the southernmost of Syria’s major ports, about 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of the northern Lebanese port city of Tripoli, where the passengers had boarded.
“We are dealing with one of our biggest rescue operations,” Sleiman Khalil, an official with the Syrian Transport Ministry, told AFP.
“We are covering a large area that stretches along the entire Syrian coast,” he added, saying high waves made his work difficult.
Many of the ship’s Lebanese passengers come from impoverished regions in the country’s north, including the city of Tripoli, Lebanon’s poorest.
Tripoli has become a hub for illegal migration, with most migrant boats leaving its shores.
wissam al-Talawi, a Tripoli resident who hails from the northern region of Akkar, was among the survivors and is being treated in hospital, his brother Ahmad told AFP.
But the bodies of Wissam’s two daughters, aged five and nine, were returned to Lebanon, where they were buried early Friday, Ahmad said.
“They left two days ago,” he added.
“(My brother) couldn’t pay his daily expenses or the cost of enrolling his children in school,” he added, saying Wissam’s wife and two children are still missing.
Other relatives told AFP that they had come to the Syrian border to check on their relatives.
Last year, Lebanon saw a surge in the number of migrants using its shores to attempt the dangerous crossing in overcrowded boats to reach Europe.
In April, the sinking of an overcrowded migrant boat pursued by the Lebanese navy off the north coast of Tripoli killed dozens of people, sparking anger in the country.
The circumstances of that incident were not entirely clear, with some on board claiming the navy rammed their vessel, while officials insisted the smugglers attempted reckless escape maneuvers.
Many of the bodies were never recovered.
On September 13, the Turkish coast guard announced the deaths of six migrants, including two babies, and rescued 73 people trying to reach Europe off the coast of the southwestern province of Aft.
They had reportedly boarded from Tripoli in Lebanon in an attempt to reach Italy.
Most ships leaving Lebanon are headed for European Union member Cyprus, an island 175 kilometers (110 miles) to the west.

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