BEIRUT/TRIPOLI: The Foreign Ministry announced Tuesday that it would be sending a delegation to Indonesia within the next 24 hours to oversee the repatriation of over 40 Lebanese nationals, including the survivors of last week’s boat tragedy.
The delegation, which will be led by the head of the Higher Relief Committee, Ibrahim Bashir, will also include a forensics expert tasked with identifying the remains of dozens of recovered bodies using DNA testing. The delegation will arrange the transfer of any remains back to Lebanon.
Lebanese authorities in northern Lebanon began taking samples Tuesday from relatives of the missing.
Last Friday, a boat carrying some 80 migrants seeking to illegally enter Australia foundered off the coast of Indonesia, killing dozens, with many more still missing. As news broke that many of those on board were Lebanese from impoverished villages in northern Lebanon, public outrage mounted, with the victims’ families blaming the poor living conditions for pushing their loved ones to resort to human traffickers.
While conflicting reports have emerged regarding the number of dead and missing, the Foreign Ministry’s secretary-general, Ambassador Wafiq Ruhaimeh, said that according to survivors, approximately 68 of the 80 people on board were Lebanese. Eighteen survived the sinking, but it is unknown how many of the 36 bodies that have reportedly been recovered are those of Lebanese citizens.
Ruhaimeh defended the ministry’s response in comments to journalists following a meeting with Bashir, officials from the ministries of health and foreign affairs, and the Secretary-General of the Supreme Defense Council, Maj. Gen. Mohammad Khair.
Ruhaimeh swatted aside accusations that authorities were slow to react, claiming the ministry has been working nonstop since news of the tragedy broke, but that sorting out the logistics of the recovery mission took several days.
Ruhaimeh said the survivors are currently being put up at a hotel in the city of Sukabumi until their travel papers and return flights to Lebanon can be arranged. He said they would be repatriated “very soon” along with six Lebanese nationals who were being held by Indonesian authorities for overstaying their visas, and at least 18 more citizens who were not on the boat that sank but were preparing to make a similar attempt.
While Ruhaimeh had no additional information on the investigation into the smuggling network behind the doomed voyage, the National News Agency reported Tuesday that four Lebanese nationals, including two from Akkar, had been arrested in connection with the case.
Meanwhile, new details of the vessel’s ordeal were revealed Monday during a news conference in Sydney, where the vice-chief of the Australian Defense Force, Air Marshal Mark Binskin, presented his official report of Australian rescue efforts.
At approximately 7:57 a.m. Friday, he said, Australian police received a phone call claiming that a ship that had left Jakarta four days earlier with 80 people on board was stranded with no food or water and sinking.
The Australians established contact with a passenger on board but were unable to determine the vessel’s exact coordinates, at which point they informed the Indonesian search and rescue agency, suspecting that it lay within Indonesian waters. Despite dispatching two aircraft and diverting four merchant ships, Binskin said, Australian authorities were unable to locate the ship. At approximately 4:40 p.m. they were “made aware of a maritime incident in the vicinity of the reported vessel in distress,” indicating that their Indonesian counterparts had located the boat.
Binskin denied media reports based on survivor accounts that the Australian authorities had been contacted as early as Thursday.
“Our response was professional and timely,” he said.
Meanwhile, angry residents in the north of the country briefly blocked several main roads Tuesday, demanding that Lebanese authorities do more to discover the fate of the Lebanese on board the vessel.“All we hear is conflicting information and words of condolence,” said Khodr Harraz, one the boat victims’ relatives who joined the protest at Abu Ali roundabout. “We want action by authorities.”
Tripoli MP Mohammad Kabbara echoed the protesters’ accusations, urging President Michel Sleiman to personally travel to Indonesia to oversee the rescue operations. “The tragedy of Lebanese victims in Indonesia, the living and the dead alike, causes pain and provokes an angry cry at the same time.”
The families called off their protest and opened the roads after receiving personal assurances from caretaker Interior Minister Marwan Charbel that the Lebanese state was serious about returning the survivors and the bodies of the victims to Lebanon.
Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati and President Michel Sleiman also came out in defense of the Lebanese state’s handling of the issue.
“Since the first day of this tragedy, the Lebanese government mobilized all its branches to follow up on this humanitarian issue,” Mikati said in a statement released Tuesday. The statement went on to praise the efforts of the Lebanese Embassy in Indonesia for its response.
Sleiman also issued a statement emphasizing that the president was personally following up on the return of the bodies and the survivors to Lebanon, as well as the investigations into the human smuggling networks that exploit asylum-seekers.