Lebanese forces have intercepted an Italy-bound migrant boat and arrested five people accused of trying to smuggle migrants, a security source told AFP on Tuesday.
The arrests come after at least 39 people died when a boat carrying citizens of Lebanon and other Middle Eastern nations sank en route from Indonesia to Australia.
And they follow a major tragedy in which a boat carrying hundreds of African migrants sank off the Italian coast, killing at least 232 people.
“Lebanese army intelligence forces intercepted a boat last night carrying three Lebanese crew and 10 Syrians and Palestinians, who told investigators they were heading to Italy,” the source said.
The boat had set sail from the southern port of Sidon, the source added, saying it was the first instance he was aware of in which migrants have tried to sail from southern Lebanon to Italy.
“The investigation revealed that the Syrian and Palestinian passengers each paid $5,000 to the people organising the trip,” the source said.
Police arrested the three Lebanese crew and another two Lebanese believed to be part of a people smuggling network that had organised a route to Italy for the first time.
The crew planned to stop the boat at several other destinations around the Mediterranean to pick up other migrants before heading to Italy, the source said.
Over the weekend, 18 Lebanese survivors of the boat accident that killed at least 28 people off the coast of Indonesia returned to Lebanon.
The Lebanese had left some of the country’s poorest regions in the hope of making it to Australia.
In Italy, recovery workers are still pulling the bodies of African migrants who died trying to reach the European country from the sea.
The huge death toll in the disaster off Italy’s Lampedusa has prompted the EU to urge Mediterranean patrols to cope with the flood of migrants seeking to enter Europe.