TRIPOLI, Lebanon (AP) — Survivors of a doomed migrant boat blamed the Lebanese navy on Sunday for sinking it, saying a naval vessel rammed the packed ship while trying to force it back to shore.
Meanwhile the death toll of Saturday night's disaster rose to seven, with state media reporting the recovery of a body of a man from Tripoli. The incident was the latest in a growing trend involving mostly Lebanese and Syrians trying to travel to Europe from Lebanon in search of better lives.
Survivor Mustafa al-Jundi told The Associated Press that the navy tried to stop the migrant boat but it kept sailing.
“They rammed into us and made us sink then moved away,” said al-Jundi, whose two sisters are still missing. He said the Lebanese military returned about 90 minutes later and rescued them.
Angry residents attacked a main army checkpoint in Tripoli earlier in the day, throwing stones at troops who responded by firing into the air. Some shops closed as angry men blocked several streets in Tripoli, Lebanon’s most impoverished city. There were no reports of injuries.
The Lebanese military announced that 47 people were rescued, while seven bodies including one of a young girl had been recovered. They said high waves had submerged the boat, which was carrying more people than it could hold.
Col. Haitham Dinnawi, commander of the Lebanese navy, told reporters the old boat had been packed with nearly 60 people, but could only carry six. No precautionary measures were taken onboard, he added, and no one was wearing life vests.
Dinnawi blamed the captain of the migrant boat for maneuvering to avoid being forced to return back to shore, and blamed him for the collision. He showed photographs of the damage on the side and back of one navy boat, adding that the migrant boat sank within seconds after the accident.
“It was a crime to take people on such a boat,” Dinnawi said, adding that it was manufactured in 1974 and carrying 15 times its capacity. He said search operations are still ongoing for the missing.
Prime Minister Najib Mikati declared a day of national mourning on Monday.
“It is appalling to see deprivation still drives people to take these dangerous trips across the seas,” tweeted Lebanon’s U.N. humanitarian coordinator, Najat Rochdi.
Several of the rescued were treated on the spot while others were taken to nearby hospitals. One person was detained on suspicion of being a smuggler involved in organizing the journey, the military said.
Search operations began Saturday night after the boat, apparently heading to Europe, sank shortly after leaving the coastal Lebanese town of Qalamoun.
For many years Lebanon was a country that took in refugees, but since the country’s economic meltdown began in October 2019, hundreds of people have left on boats hoping for a better life in Europe.
Migrants from Lebanon pay thousands of dollars to smugglers to take them to Europe. Hundreds have made it to European countries, while dozens of others have been stopped and forced to return home by the Lebanese navy. Several people have lost their lives on the way to Europe over the past three years.
Lebanon, a small Mediterranean nation of 6 million people, including 1 million Syrian refugees, is in the grip of the worst economic crisis in the country’s modern history. The economic meltdown has put more three-quarters of the country’s population into poverty.
The World Bank describes the crisis as among the worst in the world since the 1850s. Tens of thousands of people have lost their jobs and the Lebanese pound has lost more than 90% of its value.