By ALBERT AJI
DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — The death toll from a boat carrying migrants from Lebanon that sank in Syrian waters has risen to at least 73, state TV quoted Syria’s health minister as saying on Friday.
Syrian authorities said some family members of the victims have started crossing into Syria from neighboring 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 dropped more than 90% of its value, eradicating the purchasing power of thousands of families that 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.
Earlier Friday, Tartus governor Abdul- Halim Khalil told the pro-government Sham FM that search is ongoing for more bodies off his country’s coast. Khalil said the boat sank two days earlier.
A Syrian port official told state news agency, SANA, that 31 bodies were washed to the shore and the rest were picked up by Syrian boats that began a search operation Thursday evening.
Thousands of Lebanese, Syrians and Palestinians have left Lebanon on boats over the past months seeking better opportunities in Europe.
Lebanon has a population of 6 million, including 1 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 five kilometers (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.
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