Lebanese navy rescues distressed boat carrying migrants

BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanon’s navy rescued a boat carrying migrants that had left the country, heading west across the Mediterranean Sea, but broke down off the coast, the prime minister’s office said Saturday.

It was the latest case of desperate people — mostly Lebanese, Syrians and Palestinians — sailing toward European Union member Cyprus, and sometimes Turkey, seeking to escape Lebanon’s worsening economic meltdown. Some 75% of the country’s population of 6 million, including more than a million Syrian refugees, now lives in poverty.

Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s office said the migrants had left Lebanon illegally, and that the navy towed the boat shoreward. It did not say how many migrants were aboard but said some were children.

The statement added that there would be an investigation. Smugglers in Lebanon have made a business out of selling passage to Europe for thousands of dollars per per person.

Upon their arrival at the coast, the migrants were detained and questioned by Lebanese authorities, the state-run National News Agency said. It said the migrants were in the dozens.

On Saturday evening, relatives of the migrants protested, closing off three major roads, including the street leading to the port in the northern city of Tripoli demanding their release, the news agency reported.

On Friday, the Internal Security Forces stormed a beach resort in the northern town of Qalamoun, where they foiled an attempt to smuggle 82 men, women and children to Europe. Police said that passengers had paid $5,000 per person, and that they had detained one of the smugglers.

EU-member Cyprus is approximately 172 kilometers (107 miles) from Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city.

Last year, several Lebanese citizens drowned in the Mediterranean while trying to reach Europe. Hundreds have been rescued since since Lebanon’s economic crisis began in late 2019.

Tens of thousands have lost their jobs in the meltdown, which has seen the local currency lose more than 90% of its value. The World Bank says Lebanon’s economic crisis is among the worst the world has witnessed in over a century.

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