BEIRUT: Eighteen survivors of the Indonesian boat tragedy will return to Beirut Sunday with the exact number of Lebanese nationals who went missing during the incident still unknown, officials said Friday. Following talks with Indonesian Defense Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro in Jakarta, caretaker Minister of State 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 returning to Lebanon.
Concerning the repatriation of the bodies of the Lebanese victims, Karami said DNA tests would take time as samples taken from relatives in Lebanon need to be matched with the corpses.
A ferry reportedly carrying 80 immigrants, including some 68 Lebanese, seeking to illegally enter Australia foundered off the coast of Indonesia last week. 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 the head of Lebanon’s Higher Relief Committee, Ibrahim Bashir, held a news conference in Jakarta in the presence of seven Lebanese survivors.
“Eighteen people will leave for Beirut tomorrow [Saturday],” Karami said. “As for the [seven] attending the conference with us, they will return with us Monday.”
A source at Rafik Hariri International Airport said the first batch of the Lebanese survivors was scheduled to arrive in Beirut at 10:30 a.m. Sunday.
Karami also noted that a further six Lebanese held for overstaying visas in Indonesia had been released from jail and would return to Lebanon Tuesday. The six were identified as Ali Hasan, Faraj Mheesh, Nasereddine Hasan, Mohammad Abdel-Latif, Abdel-Rahman 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 Lebanon.
Bashir said the delegation was also able to overcome financial and administrative restrictions in coordination with the Lebanese Charge d’Affaires Joanna Qazzi.
Earlier this week, the Lebanese Foreign Ministry announced an additional 18 to 20 Lebanese had arrived in Indonesia intending either to travel aboard the ill-fated vessel, or attempt a similar trip. Five had come forward Friday, and an additional five had reportedly been identified by the Lebanese delegation but had not presented themselves at the embassy.
“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 reportedly held in Australian detention centers in Papua New Guinea, Christmas Island and 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 measures to help the repatriation of the survivors and the bodies to Lebanon.
His appeal came during a meeting Friday with the Indonesian ambassador to Lebanon at Baabda Palace, the NNA reported. Sleiman also urged Jakarta to intensify search efforts for the missing Lebanese.
Caretaker Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour confirmed in a statement that 18 Lebanese survivors of the boat tragedy, accompanied by delegates from the Foreign Ministry and General Security, will leave Jakarta Saturday night via Dubai and arrive at Beirut airport at 10:30 a.m. Sunday.
In another statement to the Middle East News Agency, Mansour said the repatriation of the bodies might take several days because of the difficulty in identifying them.
Meanwhile, Iran’s Ambassador to Lebanon Ghadanfar Roknabadi said following talks with Mansour that Tehran was “fully prepared to provide any assistance” to Lebanon in the wake of the boat tragedy.