BEIRUT: The exact number of Lebanese nationals who went missing during a recent migrant boat tragedy in Indonesian waters is unknown, but 18 survivors will return to Beirut Sunday, officials said Friday.
Following talks with the Indonesian Defense Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro in Jakarta, caretaker State Minister Ahmad Karami who is heading a Lebanese official delegation to Indonesia said there was a “discrepancy in the number of missing.”
“While some say there is only one missing, another theory says there are six,” the National News Agency quoted Karami as saying, adding that he will try to ascertain the exact number of missing before he returns to Lebanon.
Karami also said DNA tests will take time as samples taken from relatives in Lebanon need to be matched with the bodies of the victims.
A ferry reportedly carrying 80 immigrants, including approximately 68 Lebanese, seeking to illegally enter Australia sank off the coast of Indonesia last Friday. Only 36 bodies have been recovered since the accident.
It is unclear how many of the deceased are Lebanese, but dozens missing are feared dead.
The delegation, which also includes Lebanon's Higher Relief Committee head Ibrahim Bashir, held a news conference in Jakarta in the presence of seven Lebanese survivors.
"Eighteen people will leave to Beirut tomorrow [Saturday]. As for the [seven] attending the conference with us, they will return with us on Monday,” Karami told reporters.
A source at the Rafik Hariri International Airport said the first batch of the Lebanese survivors is scheduled to arrive in Beirut at 10:30 a.m. Sunday.
An additional five Lebanese will also return home with the minister Monday.
Karami also noted that a further six Lebanese held for overstaying visas in Indonesia have been released from Indonesia prison and will return to Lebanon on Tuesday.
The minister identified the released as Ali Hasan, Faraj Mheesh, Naser-eddine Hasan, Mohammad Abdel-Latif, Abdel-Raham Issa and Khodr Darwish.
Karami said the delegation worked closely with the Indonesian government as it paid penalties and prepared the necessary paperwork for the Lebanese to return to their home country.
Bashir said the delegation was also able to overcome financial and administrative restrictions in coordination with the Lebanese Charge d'affairs Joanna Qazzi.
Qazzi and Karami said a group of five people who arrived to Jakarta intending to travel aboard the ill-fated boat to Australia have not yet come forward to the consulate in Indonesia.
“We have appealed to them on several occasions through some of the Lebanese here to come forward to the embassy because they have a golden opportunity offered by the Lebanese government which would pay their fines and the ticket,” Qazzi said.
Karami, however, said the government cannot force anyone with a passport and a valid visa to return.
As for the 41 Lebanese who reportedly settled in papa New Guinea, Christmas Island or the Australian coast, Karami said he would discuss their case with caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati.
Meanwhile, President Michel Sleiman urged Indonesian authorities to speed up the return of the bodies and the survivors. His appeal came during a meeting Friday with the Indonesian ambassador to Lebanon. Sleiman also urged Jakarta to multiply search efforts for the missing Lebanese.
Iran’s ambassador to Lebanon Ghadanfar Roknabadi said following talks with caretaker Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour that Tehran was “fully prepared to provide any assistance” to Lebanon in the wake of the boat tragedy.