BEIRUT — A Lebanese submarine has recovered the remains of at least 10 migrants who drowned when their boat sank earlier this year off the Lebanese coast with around 30 people on board, the navy said on Friday.
The boat, carrying dozens of Lebanese, Syrians and Palestinians trying to migrate by sea to Italy, sank more than 5 kilometers from the port of Tripoli, following a clash with the Lebanese navy.
Ten bodies were found that night, including that of a child, while 48 survivors were pulled from the Mediterranean Sea. According to Navy estimates, 30 people sank with the boat.
Since Monday, the small 3-person underwater craft – a Pisces VI submarine – has been searching for the remains. The wreckage was located on Wednesday, at a depth of around 450 meters (about 1,470 feet).
The circumstances of the sinking of the ship are to this day disputed. Survivors say their ship was rammed by the Lebanese navy, while the military says the migrants’ boat collided with a navy vessel as it tried to flee.
Captain Scott Waters, who operated the craft, told reporters at a news conference in Tripoli on Friday that the first body they found was outside the wreckage, but a large part had decayed since the sinking, with most clothing and bones remaining intact. He said the second body was found coming up from the wreckage.
Waters said the crew identified four other bodies inside the wreckage and a significant amount of debris around the ship. At least four other bodies were found far from the wreckage.
Some of the people who tried to escape the boat, he surmised, got “tangled up in this debris”.
“One of the very last footage and images we took,” he added, was of the remains of a person, one arm around another. “They died holding each other.”
Tom Zreika, a Lebanese-Australian and chairman of the Australian charity AusRelief which helped bring the submarine to Lebanon, said the boat was “a bit under silt” making it difficult to recover.
Zreika said the next step was for Lebanon to pull out the sunken boat, but that remains a difficult task.
Lebanese Navy chief Colonel Haitham Dinnawi said all video footage of Waters’ crew will be handed over to the court as it investigates the sinking.
Tripoli lawmaker Ashraf Rifi helped hire the submarine for cash-strapped Lebanon through Zreika and his own brother, Jamal Rifi, who lives in Sydney. Rifi and Zreika told the Sydney Morning Herald last month that an anonymous donor gave just over $295,000 to lease the submarine.
The April shipwreck was the biggest migration tragedy for Lebanon in recent years and has put the government even more on the defensive at a time when the country is in economic freefall and public trust in the state and its institutions are rapidly crumbling.
With a population of around 6 million, including 1 million Syrian refugees, Lebanon has been mired in an economic collapse since 2019 that has plunged three-quarters of the population into poverty.
Once a country of refuge for refugees, Lebanon has become a launching pad for dangerous migration by sea to Europe. As the crisis deepened, more and more Lebanese refugees, as well as Syrian and Palestinian refugees, set sail, with security agencies reporting foiled migration attempts almost every week.