(MENAFN- The Peninsula) AP
At least 77 people were killed when a boat carrying migrants from Lebanon sank off Syria this week, the country's health minister said Friday, amid fears the death toll could be far higher.
The incident was deadliest so far as a surging number of Lebanese, Syrians, and Palestinians have been trying to flee crisis-hit Lebanon by sea for a better future in Europe.
Tens of thousands have lost their jobs while the Lebanese pound has dropped more than 90% in value, eradicating the purchasing power of thousands of families that now live in extreme poverty.
Syrian authorities said victims' relatives have started crossing from Lebanon into Syria to help identify their loved ones and retrieve their bodies. The vessel left Lebanon on Tuesday and news of what happened first started to emerge on Thursday afternoon. The boat was carrying Syrian, Lebanese and Palestinians.
Syrian state-run TV quoted Health Minister Mohammed Hassan Ghabbash as saying 20 people were rescued and were being treated at al-Basel hospital in Syria's coastal city of Tartus. He added that medical authorities have been on alert since Thursday afternoon to help in the search operations.
An official at al-Basel, speaking on condition of anonymity under regulations, told The Associated Press that eight of those rescued were in intensive care. The official also confirmed the 77 deaths. There were conflicting reports on how many people were on board the vessel when it sank, with some saying at least 120. Details about the ship, such as its size and capacity, were also not clear.
Lebanese Transport Minister Ali Hamie said the survivors included 12 Syrians, five Lebanese and three Palestinians. Eight bodies have been brought back to Lebanon early Friday, according to Lebanese Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi.
After sunset Friday, bodies of more victims, including two Palestinians, were brought to Lebanon. They were taken in seven ambulances and headed south from the Arida border crossing toward the northern city of Tripoli.
Syrian state media said authorities handed over the bodies of nine Lebanese and two Palestinians to the Lebanese Red Cross at the Arida border crossing.
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