The death toll from a boat that sank off the coast of Syria after leaving Lebanon earlier this week has risen to 94, Syrian state television said on Saturday.
The country’s transport ministry quoted survivors as saying the boat left Lebanon’s northern Minyeh region on Tuesday, bound for Europe with between 120 and 150 people on board.
Filippo Grandi, the UN high commissioner for refugees, called the incident a “heartbreaking tragedy”.
At least 14 rescued people were recovering in hospitals in Syria, while six others were released and two remained in intensive care, Syria’s official Sana news agency reported. As the search continued, several people were still missing since the sinking of the boat on Thursday.
“The death toll…has risen to 94,” state television said.
The Lebanese army said it arrested a Lebanese national who “admitted to having organized the recent [people] smuggling operation from Lebanon to Italy by sea”.
As many as 150 people were on board the small boat, which sank off the Syrian port of Tartous, 30 miles (about 50 km) north of Tripoli in Lebanon, from where it departed.
Those on board were mainly Lebanese, Syrians and Palestinians and included children and the elderly, the UN said. Unicef said 10 children appeared to be among the dead.
Lebanese families held a second day of funerals on Saturday after receiving the bodies of their loved ones on Friday evening through the Arida border crossing with Syria. Others are still waiting for the bodies of their loved ones.
In Tripoli, anger mixed with grief when relatives learned of the deaths of loved ones. Hundreds of people gathered in the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared, north of Tripoli, on Saturday for the funeral procession of one of the victims, raising his fist in the air.
The number of people who left or attempted to leave Lebanon by sea nearly doubled between 2020 and 2021, the UN refugee agency told Reuters earlier this month. The figure has further increased by more than 70% in 2022.
The rise was fueled by Lebanon’s financial collapse as poverty rates soared among the population of 6.5 million.
Philippe Lazzarini, the head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, said: “Nobody boards these death boats lightly.
“People are making this perilous decision, risking their lives in pursuit of dignity.”
With Agence France Presse