BEIRUT -At least 71 people died when the migrant boat they were aboard sank off the Syrian coast after sailing from Lebanon earlier this week, the Lebanese transport minister said, as search operations continued on Friday.
It marks the deadliest such voyage yet from Lebanon, where mounting economic desperation has led many to board often rickety and overcrowded boats in the hope of reaching Europe.
Syrian authorities began finding bodies off the coast of Tartus on Thursday afternoon. The Syrian transport ministry has cited survivors saying the boat left from Lebanon's northern Minyeh region on Tuesday with between 120 and 150 people onboard, bound for Europe.
Lebanese transport minister Ali Hamiye said 20 survivors were being treated in Syrian hospitals, the bulk of them Syrians, around 1 million of whom live in Lebanon as refugees.
The boat was "very small" and made of wood, he said, describing such sailings as an almost daily occurrence organised by people who did not care for safety.
Samer Qubrusli, the Syrian director-general of ports, said rescue efforts were continuing on Friday.
The spate of such voyages has been fuelled by Lebanon's financial collapse - one of the worst ever recorded globally. Poverty rates have sky-rocketed among the population of some 6.5 million.
Cyprus scrambled search and rescue crews late on Monday and Tuesday when in the space of hours two vessels carrying migrants from Lebanon put out distress signals; there were 300 in one vessel, 177 in the other. They were all rescued, the island's Joint Rescue Coordination Center said.
The Lebanese army said on Wednesday it had rescued 55 people on board one malfunctioning boat in the country's territorial waters and towed it back to shore.
The number of people who have left or tried to leave Lebanon by sea nearly doubled in 2021 from 2020, the United Nations refugee agency told earlier this month.
It rose again by more than 70% in 2022 compared with the same period last year.
In April, a migrant boat that set off from near the northern city of Tripoli sank during an interception by the Lebanese navy off the coast.
About 80 Lebanese, Syrian and Palestinian migrants were on board, of whom some 40 were rescued, seven were confirmed dead and around 30 officially remain missing.
(Reporting by Laila Bassam in Lebanon and Kinda Makieh in Syria; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Alex Richardson and Kim Coghill)