DAMASCUS: At least 77 migrants drowned when a boat they boarded in Lebanon sank off Syria's coast, Syria's health minister said on Friday, in one of the deadliest such shipwrecks in the eastern Mediterranean.
Lebanon, which since 2019 has been mired in a financial crisis branded by the World Bank as one of the worst in modern times, has become a launchpad for illegal migration, with its own citizens joining Syrian and Palestinian refugees clamouring to leave their homeland.
Around 150 people, mostly Lebanese and Syrians, were on board the small boat that went down on Thursday off the Syrian city of Tartus.
"Seventy-seven people have died," Syria's Health Minister Hassan al Ghabash told state television from Al-Basel hospital in Tartus, where he said 20 survivors were being treated, including eight in critical condition.
Of those rescued, five were Lebanese, Lebanon's caretaker Transport Minister Ali Hamie said.
Tartus is the southernmost of Syria's main ports, and lies some 50 kilometres north of the northern Lebanese port city of Tripoli, where the migrants had boarded.
"We are dealing with one of our largest ever rescue operations," Sleiman Khalil, an official at Syria's transport ministry told reporters, as the search for survivors continued.
"We are covering a large area that extends along the entire Syrian coast," he said, adding that high waves were hampering their efforts.
Russian ships were assisting in search operations, according to Syrian authorities.
Rana Merhi of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent said identified bodies would be transported to a border crossing to be handed over to the Lebanese Red Cross.
"Some of the relatives of the victims came from Lebanon... to identify the dead," said Ahmed Ammar, a Tartus health official.
Many of the boat's Lebanese passengers hail from impoverished regions in the country's north, including Tripoli.
The city has emerged as a illegal migration hub, with most migrant boats departing from its shores.
Among the survivors was Wissam al Talawi, a Tripoli resident who was being treated in hospital, his brother Ahmad told reporters.
But the corpses of Wissam's two daughters, aged five and nine, had been returned to Lebanon where they were buried early on Friday, Ahmad said.
"They left two days ago," he added.
"(My brother) couldn't afford his daily expenses, or the cost of enrolling his children in school," he said, adding that Wissam's wife and two sons were still missing.
The Syrian Arab Red Crescent published images on its Facbeook page showing volunteers carrying corpses covered in bags into an ambulance.
Other rescuers were pictured searching for survivors along the coast of Tartus.
At the Arida border crossing between Lebanon and Syria, dozens waited for corpses to arrive.
They included residents of the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared north of Tripoli -- which is home to some of the dead and missing.
"I am an old man but if I had the chance to die at sea I would rather do that than lead a humiliating life in this country," one of them said from the crossing as awaited news of his missing niece and nephew.
Since 2020, Lebanon has seen a spike in the number of migrants using its shores to attempt the perilous crossing in jam-packed boats to reach Europe.
In April, the sinking of an overcrowded migrant boat pursued by the Lebanese navy off the northern coast of Tripoli killed dozens of people, sparking anger in the country.
The exact circumstances of that incident are still unclear, with some on board claiming the navy rammed their vessel, while officials insisted the smugglers made reckless bids to escape.
Many of the bodies were never recovered.
On September 13, Turkey's coastguard announced the death of six migrants, including two babies, and rescued 73 people trying to reach Europe, off the coast of the southwestern province of Mugla.
They had reportedly boarded from Tripoli in Lebanon in an attempt to reach Italy.
Most of the boats setting off from Lebanon head for European Union member Cyprus, an island about 175 kilometres to the west. -- AFP