At least 77 people died when a boat carrying migrants from Lebanon sank in Syrian waters, the country’s health minister said.
Syrian authorities said some family members of the victims have started crossing into Syria from Lebanon to help identify their loved ones and retrieve their bodies.
The incident is the deadliest since a surging number of Lebanese, Syrians and Palestinians have tried to flee crisis-hit Lebanon by sea to Europe.
In Lebanon alone, tens of thousands of people have lost their jobs and the Lebanese pound has lost more than 90% of its value, eradicating the purchasing power of thousands of families who now live in extreme poverty.
Health minister Mohammed Hassan Ghabbash was quoted as saying 20 people were rescued alive and are receiving treatment at al-Basel hospital in the Syrian 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 said that eight of those rescued were in intensive care. The official also confirmed the 77 deaths.
Lebanese transport minister Ali Hamie said the survivors included 12 Syrians, five Lebanese and three Palestinians.
Earlier in the day, Tartus governor Abdul-Halim Khalil told the pro-government Sham FM Radio that the search was under way for more bodies off his country’s coast. Mr Khalil said the boat sank on Wednesday.
Syria’s state news agency, SANA, quoted a port official as saying that 31 bodies were washed ashore while the rest were picked up by Syrian boats in a search operation that started on Thursday evening.
Wissam Tellawi, one of the survivors being treated at al-Basel, lost two daughters. His wife and two sons are still missing. The bodies of his daughters, Mae and Maya, were brought to Lebanon early on Friday and buried in their northern home town of Qarqaf.
“He told me by telephone, ‘I am fine’ but the children are lost,” said Mr Tellawi’s father, who identified himself as Abu Mahmoud. The father told the local Al-Jadeed TV that his son gave smugglers the family’s apartment in return for taking him and his family to Europe.
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 has a population of six million, including one million Syrian refugees, and has been in the grips of a severe economic meltdown since late 2019 that has pulled over three-quarters of the population into poverty.
In April, a boat carrying dozens of Lebanese, Syrians and Palestinians trying to migrate by sea to Italy went down more than three miles from the port of Tripoli, following a confrontation with the Lebanese navy. Dozens were killed in the incident.
Migrants have been leaving the country from the northern Lebanese coast, the most impoverished region in the small country.
On Wednesday, Lebanese officials said naval forces rescued a boat carrying 55 migrants after it faced technical problems about seven miles off the coast of the northern region of Akkar. It said the people rescued included two pregnant women and two children.