BEIRUT: Tensions rose in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli on Sunday after a boat capsized and sank off its coast as it was being pursued by the army, with agitated crowds gathering outside the hospitals treating the survivors.
Six people, including an 18-month-old girl called Taleen Al-Hamwi and two women, died.
There were 45 survivors as of Sunday morning, and more than 10 people remain missing.
About 60 people had boarded the boat from an area between Qalamoun and Harisha, a beach that is not subject to strict security control and is often used for human smuggling activities.
The boat was headed toward Cyprus and then onto mainland Europe.
Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati announced a national day of mourning on Monday.
Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri called for a “quick investigation that reveals the circumstances and determines the responsibility. Otherwise, we have something else to say.”
He tweeted: “When conditions force Lebanese citizens to resort to death boats to escape from the state's hell, this means that we are in a fallen state. Tripoli is announcing today this fall through its victims. The testimonies of the victims of the death boat are dangerous, and we will not allow (these testimonies) to be buried in the sea of the city.”
Families of the victims headed to the shore to find out the fate of the missing. Their anger also focused on the Lebanese army.
Journalist Ghassan Rifi from Tripoli told Arab News that the boat had a lower cabin where the women and children were probably hiding. There was a possibility they may have sunk along with the boat, he said.
The commander of the naval forces, Col. Haitham Dannawi, accused the boat's captain of trying to escape and crashing the vessel into the naval forces' cruiser.
The ill-fated boat was made in 1974, he said.
It was small, 10 meters long, 3 meters wide, and the permitted load was only 10 people, he told a press conference. But it lacked safety measures.
He said: “The patrol that followed the boat a few miles from the shore and in the territorial waters tried to urge it to return because the situation was not safe and, if we did not stop the boat, it would have sunk outside the territorial waters.”
No weapons were used by naval forces, he said.
“The boat sank quickly because of the overload and were it not for the presence of our forces near it, the number of victims would have been greater.”
He said the boat carried 15 times more weight than it could handle and that the army did not commit any mistake on a technical and ground level.
“We bear our full responsibilities in the army leadership, and if there is any verbal offense, we will hold the person concerned responsible.”
A dispute broke out between soldiers and the families at the port of Tripoli after the families tried to prevent Social Affairs Minister Hector Hajjar, delegated by Mikati, from completing his press statement.
The families confronted him and the other officials present with insults, while the Al-Qubba area witnessed heavy gunfire during the victims’ funerals.
Angry protesters in Tripoli destroyed a military medical center amid calls to take to the city’s streets and “declare a major escalation.”
One of the survivors, a young man in his twenties who was wet and shivering, said shortly after midnight on Saturday: “The security cruiser chased us, and the officers on board said they would bury us. Then, they rammed the boat in the middle and on the sides until it sank.”
Security sources suggested that the number of victims could rise.
The tragic incident came a week after the army thwarted an illegal immigration operation at the Arida border point in the north with the capture of a boat that had 20 Syrians on board, including women and children.
“Smugglers get thousands of dollars from migrants. In the Saturday incident, each person paid at least $2,000,” said Rifi.
Last year, the army stopped 21 boats carrying 707 people, according to the Lebanese Army Guidance Directorate.
In 2020, the army stopped four boats carrying 126 people.