Six dead, 48 rescued as migrant boat capsizes off Lebanon

Several people remain missing after a boat carrying about 60 people capsized near the Lebanese port of Tripoli.

At least six people have died, including a child, and 48 people were rescued after a boat carrying about 60 migrants sank off the coast of Lebanon, where deadly sea crossings have spiralled due to an economic crisis.

“The army’s naval forces managed to rescue 48 people and retrieve the body of a dead girl … from a boat that sank while trying to illegally smuggle them out,” the army said in a statement on Sunday.

“Most people on board were rescued,” the army said, without specifying their nationalities.

The army retrieved five corpses off Tripoli’s coast on Sunday, the state-run National News Agency reported, hours after the body of a little girl was returned to shore.

Haissam Dannaoui, the head of Lebanon’s naval forces, told a news conference on Sunday that the 10-metre (33-foot) boat built in 1974 was designed to only accommodate six passengers, but it was crammed with nearly 60 would-be migrants and took to sea without any safety precautions.

Dannaoui said the army tried to thwart the smuggling operation before the ship sailed out of the Qalamoun region, south of Tripoli, but could not reach the departure point in time.

An ensuing sea chase saw two naval patrols trying to force the migrant boat to turn back.

“Unfortunately, the captain [of the migrant boat] decided to carry out manoeuvres to escape,” leading to the vessel crashing into the patrol ships, Dannaoui said.

The impact cracked the hull of the migrant boat, which quickly submerged, he said.

“In less than five seconds, the boat was under water,” Dannaoui said, adding that passengers were quickly handed life jackets.

But one of the survivors said a naval ship had deliberately crashed into the migrant boat to force it back.

“Tho patrol boat crashed into us twice … to drown us,” the man told AFP news agency at the port, before he was silenced and carried off by a crowd of survivors’ relatives.

Anger grows in Tripoli

The latest incident stoked public anger in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second city and one of its poorest.

Growing poverty and unemployment rates have turned Tripoli into a launch pad for migrants.

Calls circulated on social media networks for protests outside the Tripoli home of Prime Minister Najib Mikati, who declared Monday a day of national mourning to grieve the victims.

The relatives of the victims and the missing lashed out at the country’s leaders.

“Even when we are trying to run away from the filth of politicians and their corruption … death catches up with us,” Nissrine Merheb, who hasn’t heard from her two cousins and their three children since they embarked on the deadly voyage, told AFP.

Lebanon, a country of about six million people, is grappling with an unprecedented financial crisis that the World Bank says is on a scale usually associated with wars.

Its currency has lost more than 90 percent of its purchasing power and the majority of the population lives below the poverty line.

The United Nations refugee agency says at least 1,570 people, 186 of them Lebanese, left or tried to leave by sea from Lebanon between January and November 2021.

Most were hoping to reach European Union member state Cyprus, an island 175km (109 miles) away. This is up from 270 passengers, including 40 Lebanese, recorded in 2019.

Most of those trying to leave Lebanon by sea are Syrian refugees, but Lebanese nationals have increasingly joined them.

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