Syrian authorities fear the 77 asylum seekers known to have drowned en route to Europe may represent only half of the doomed vessel’s human cargo.
The boat, packed with Lebanese fleeing the chaos of their ravaged and divided Mideast nation, went down off the Syrian coast earlier this week.
The mass tragedy was deadliest so far as surging numbers of Lebanese, Syrians and Palestinians flee by sea for a better future in Europe.
Syrian authorities said victims’ relatives have started crossing from Lebanon into Syria to help identify their loved ones and retrieve their bodies.
The vessel left Lebanon on Tuesday and news of what happened first started to emerge on Thursday afternoon. The boat was carrying Syrian, Lebanese and Palestinians.
Syrian state-run TV quoted Health Minister Mohammed Hassan Ghabbash as saying 20 people were rescued and were being treated at al-Basel hospital in Syria’s coastal city of Tartus. He added that medical authorities have been on alert since Thursday afternoon to help in the search operations.
An official at al-Basel, speaking on condition of anonymity under 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 on how many people were on board the vessel when it sank, with some saying at least 120. Details about the ship, such as its size and capacity, were also not clear.
Lebanese Transport Minister Ali Hamie said the survivors included 12 Syrians, five Lebanese and three Palestinians. Eight bodies have been brought back to Lebanon early Friday, according to Lebanese Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi.
Growing human toll
After sunset on Friday, bodies of more victims, including two Palestinians, were brought to Lebanon. They were taken in seven ambulances and headed south from the Arida border crossing toward the northern city of Tripoli.
Syrian state media said authorities handed over the bodies of nine Lebanese and two Palestinians to the Lebanese Red Cross at the Arida border crossing.
In the aftermath of the disaster, the Lebanese army said troops stormed the homes of several suspected smugglers, detaining four in the northern city of Tripoli, Lebanon’s second-largest and most impoverished. Three others were detained in the nearby village of Deir Ammar.
The military said the suspects were involved in smuggling of migrants by sea while others were planning to buy boats for the same reason.
Lebanon,— with a population of million, including 1 million Syrian refugees, has been in the grips of a severe economic meltdown since late 2019 that has pulled over three-quarters of the population into poverty.
For years, it was a country that received refugees from Mideast wars and conflicts but the economic crisis, rooted in decades of corruption and mismanagement, has changed that dramatically.
Prices have been skyrocketing as a result of hyperinflation, forcing many to sell their belongings to pay for smugglers to take them to Europe as the migration intensified in recent months.