BEIRUT: The death toll from a migrant boat that sank off the Syrian coast after sailing from Lebanon earlier this week has risen to 89, Syrian state TV said on Saturday.
Filippo Grandi, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), called it a "heart-wrenching tragedy".
At least 14 people rescued were recovering in hospitals in Syria while six others were discharged, as search efforts continued, with several people still missing since the boat sank on Thursday.
"There are 89 victims, while 14 people are receiving treatment at Al Basel Hospital, two of whom are in intensive care," Syria's official news agency SANA reported, quoting Iskandar Ammar, a hospital official.
Lebanon's army said it arrested a Lebanese man who "admitted to organising the recent smuggling operation from Lebanon to Italy by sea".
Lebanon, which since 2019 has been mired in a financial crisis branded by the World Bank as one of the worst in modern times, has become a launchpad for illegal migration, with its own citizens joining Syrian and Palestinian refugees clamouring to leave the country.
On Friday, caretaker transport minister Ali Hamie said more than 100 people, mostly Lebanese and Syrians, were on board the small boat that sank Thursday in the Mediterranean Sea off the Syrian city of Tartus.
Syrian authorities had said around 150 passengers were on board.
“I am discussing with Syria’s transport minister a mechanism to retrieve the corpses from Syria,” Hamie told AFP, adding search and rescue efforts were ongoing.
Tartus is the southernmost of Syria’s main ports, and lies some 50 kilometres (30 miles) north of the northern Lebanese port city of Tripoli, where the passengers had initially boarded.
Wissam Al Talawi from the northern Akkar region was among the survivors and is being treated in hospital, his brother Ahmad told AFP.
But the corpses of Wissam’s two daughters, aged five and nine, had been returned to Lebanon where they were buried early on Friday, Ahmad said.
“They left two days ago,” he added.
“[My brother] couldn’t afford his daily expenses, or the cost of enrolling his children in school,” he added, saying Wissam’s wife and two sons remain missing.
Last year Lebanon saw a spike in the number of migrants using its shores to attempt the perilous crossing in overcrowded boats to reach Europe.
Other relatives told AFP they had arrived at Syria’s border to check on their relatives.
Earlier on Friday, Tartus governor Abdul Halim Khalil told the pro-government Sham FM Radio that the search was underway for more bodies off his country's coast. Khalil said the boat sank on Wednesday.
Syria's state news agency, SANA, quoted a port official as saying that 31 bodies were washed ashore while the rest were picked up by Syrian boats in a search operation that started Thursday evening.
Wissam Tellawi, one of the survivors being treated at al-Basel, lost two daughters. His wife and two sons are still missing. The bodies of his daughters, Mae and Maya, were brought to Lebanon early Friday and buried in their northern hometown of Qarqaf.
"He told me by telephone, `I am fine' but the children are lost," said Tellawi's father, who identified himself as Abu Mahmoud. The father told the local Al-Jadeed TV that his son gave smugglers the family's apartment in return for taking him and his family to Europe.
In the aftermath of the disaster, the Lebanese army said troops stormed Friday the homes of several suspected smugglers, detaining four in the northern city of Tripoli, Lebanon's second-largest and most impoverished. Three others were detained in the nearby village of Deir Ammar.
The military said the suspects were involved in smuggling of migrants by sea while others were planning to buy boats for the same reason.
Lebanon, with a population of 6 million, including 1 million Syrian refugees, has been in the grips of a severe economic meltdown since late 2019 that has pulled over three-quarters of the population into poverty.
For years, it was a country that received refugees from Mideast wars and conflicts but the economic crisis, rooted in decades of corruption and mismanagement, has changed that dramatically.
Prices have been skyrocketing as a result of hyperinflation, forcing many to sell their belongings to pay for smugglers to take them to Europe as the migration intensified in recent months.
In April, a boat carrying dozens of Lebanese, Syrians and Palestinians trying to migrate by sea to Italy went down more than 5 kilometers (3 miles) from Tripoli, following a confrontation with the Lebanese navy. Dozens were killed in the incident.
On Wednesday, Lebanese officials said naval forces rescued a boat carrying 55 migrants after it faced technical problems about 11 kilometers (7 miles) off the coast of the northern region of Akkar. It said those rescued included two pregnant women and two children.
In April, the sinking of an overcrowded migrant boat pursued by the Lebanese navy off the northern coast of Tripoli killed dozens of people, sparking anger in the country.
The circumstances of that incident were not entirely clear, with some on board claiming the navy rammed their vessel, while officials insisted the smugglers attempted reckless escape manoeuvres.
Many of the bodies were never recovered.
On September 13, Turkey’s coastguard announced the death of six migrants, including two babies, and rescued 73 people trying to reach Europe, off the coast of the southwestern province of Mugla.
They had reportedly boarded from Tripoli in Lebanon in an attempt to reach Italy.
Most of the boats setting off from Lebanon head for European Union member Cyprus, an island 175 kilometres (110 miles) away to the west.