Lebanon rescue teams search for migrant boat disaster survivors

TRIPOLI (AFP): Lebanese rescue teams searched the Mediterranean for survivors Monday after an overloaded people-smuggling boat capsized while being pursued by naval forces, with dozens unaccounted for still missing at sea.

At least seven people died as a result of the tragedy, which occurred late Saturday just off the coast of the northern port city of Tripoli.

It was Lebanon’s worst such disaster in years, igniting widespread rage just three weeks before May 15 parliamentary elections.

The latest body was retrieved on Monday morning.

“The body of a woman from the Al-Nimr family was recovered today from the Tripoli beach,” the director general of Tripoli Port Ahmed Tamer told AFP, adding that rescue efforts were ongoing.

The Lebanese army said on Sunday that 48 people had been rescued, but it was not immediately clear exactly how many would-be asylum seekers were crammed onto the boat when it set off.

The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) said the boat was carrying at least 84 people when it capsized, about three nautical miles (3.5 miles, 5.5 kilometers) off the coast of Tripoli.

According to UNHCR figures, that means potentially some 30 people are still unaccounted for.

The passengers included Syrian and Palestinian refugees but most were Lebanese, local media reported.

The circumstances that led the small and overloaded craft to sink were not entirely clear, with some survivors claiming the navy rammed into their boat, and officials insisting the smuggler attempted reckless escape maneuvers.

Lebanon was once a transit point for asylum seekers from elsewhere in the region who were hoping to reach the shores of European Union member Cyprus by sea, an island 175 kilometers (110 miles) away.

However, an unprecedented economic crisis that has caused hyper-inflation and plunged millions into poverty is driving growing numbers of Lebanese to attempt the perilous crossing.

The UN says more than 1,500 would-be asylum seekers tried to leave Lebanon illegally by sea since the start of 2021.

“Lebanon’s economic crisis has triggered one of the largest waves of migration in the country’s history,” said Mathieu Luciano, Lebanon head of the International Organization for Migration.

At Tripoli’s port, brothers Abdelkarim and Mahmud Dandashi were anxiously waiting for news of eight relatives.

“They were trying to find refuge in European countries — countries that take pity on people. They kill people here,” Abdelkarim said.

“If you don’t die of hunger here, you die at sea,” he said.

The tragedy triggered small protests on Saturday, one by people who cut off one the main roads leading to Tripoli, and another in front of the morgue where the bodies of the victims were brought.

Overnight, activists removed electoral posters from the walls of Tripoli — a city ravaged by unemployment but also home to some of Lebanon’s wealthiest politicians.

On Sunday evening, a video started circulating on social media showing Energy Minister Walid Fayad being taken to task on the street over living conditions and shoved hard against a wall.

The man who assaulted him posted the video, and criticized Fayad and the government for being insensitive to the fate of millions of desperate Lebanese.

Social media was also abuzz with a picture of Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s 79-meter-long (259 foot) 100-million-dollar yacht docked in the French city of Nice, with a cardboard banner alongside that read: “The people of Tripoli are being assassinated by this yacht’s owner.”

Mikati hails from Tripoli and is also Lebanon’s richest man, with a net worth estimated at around $3.2 billion, slightly more than the International Monetary Fund aid package agreed earlier this month to rescue the country.