BEIRUT: Eighty-nine bodies have been recovered since a boat carrying migrants from Lebanon sunk off Syria’s coast, Syrian state media said Saturday, as the Lebanese army said it arrested a suspected smuggler behind one of the deadliest recent shipwrecks in the eastern Mediterranean.
The Syrian Observatory meanwhile reported the casualties were at 88, with 50 passengers still unaccounted for.
Around 150 people, mostly Lebanese and Syrians, were on board the small vessel that went down on Thursday off the Syrian city of Tartous.
Lebanon has become a starting point for illegal migration, with its citizens joining Syrian and Palestinian refugees clamoring to leave their homeland.
Illegal “death boats” set off every day from the northern coast of Lebanon. Some succeed in reaching their destination, a few are rescued by the coast guards of the countries in whose territorial waters their boats capsize, and the rest are swallowed up by the sea.
Former Tripoli MP Mustafa Alloush told Arab News: “People have completely lost hope that the situation in Lebanon could improve and there are mafias exploiting this.”
He said 95 percent of such illegal trips succeed in reaching their destinations, and those people who make it to Europe encourage their relatives and acquaintances to make the same journey.
He added: “The Lebanese authorities know who these smugglers organizing such trips are. They get huge sums of money. Security officers are paid off to facilitate such journeys or turn a blind eye.
“Why did this boat head toward Syria? Is it not to escape UNIFIL (the UN Interim Force in Lebanon), which patrols Lebanese waters?
“Drug trafficking is illegal, but remains active given the amounts of money paid to dealers and distributors.
“The same goes for human trafficking and smuggling. Money is paid, specifically to those who are supposed to protect people in this country.”
Caretaker Minister of Public Works Ali Hamieh said: “This type of boat was not made for such trips and cannot carry that many people. It turned out that it was recently imported and arrived in Lebanon two months ago.”
Most passengers were residents of northern Lebanon, some were Palestinian refugees from the Nahr Al-Bared camp, but the majority were Syrians, from Idlib, Aleppo and Latakia.
These Syrians had illegally made their way into Lebanon to escape by sea through the north of the country.
Among the victims were two girls who were buried in Akkar, north Lebanon, after being transported there by car from Tartous.
The mayor of Qarqaf, in Akkar, said: “The mother of the two girls drowned, as did her two sons. The father is still alive, but he is in a hospital in Syria.”
The boat had embarked from Lebanon’s northern Minyeh region, with passengers paying $3,000 for children and $7,000 per adult for the trip.
Lebanon’s Secretary-General of the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party Ali Hijazi, who traveled to Tartous on Friday, said survivors had informed him the boat “left from Minyeh on Tuesday morning and experienced a technical malfunction. It capsized due to the waves on Thursday morning.”
The Lebanese Army announced it has arrested eight suspected smugglers. The tragedy coincided with the announcement on social media of another boat that left the northern coast of Lebanon bound for Italy and broke down between Greece and Turkey. Its passengers were rescued and are currently in Turkey.
– with AFP