BEIRUT: A local official from Akkar said Saturday that as many as 40 Lebanese may have died in a boat accident off the coast of Indonesia, while Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati tasked the Lebanese Embassy in Jakarta with returning victims to Lebanon.
At least 21 Lebanese, including a number of children, drowned Friday on their way to Australia from Indonesia in a boat carrying around 80 people from different nationalities.
Hamza Abboud, a spokesman from the home villages of many of the victims, said there may be about 40 Lebanese dead in the incident, 25 survivors and still others missing.
Abboud said that all numbers are still estimations and no official records of the casualties and survivors are official.
Many people are still missing but rescue workers had to delay their search due to high seas, AFP reported.
The PM asked the embassy to take the needed measures for bringing the survivors back and returning the bodies of those who passed away, a statement from Mikati’s office said.
There are 18 Lebanese survivors of the boat accident, the PM’s statement said.
Haitham Joumaa, the director-general of the Ministry of Emigrant Affairs, told a local radio station that 21 Lebanese were so far killed in the incident while others remain missing. He also said there were 18 survivors so far.
He said that returning the bodies will require at least a week due to the legal procedures taken by the Indonesian authorities.
The Lebanese migrants were mostly from three villages in Akkar, north Lebanon.
A delegation from the Akkar town of Qabeet met later during the day with Mikati in his Tripoli residence.
Abboud said that a delegation of the Akkar town will head to Indonesia in the next couple of days to identify the dead.
“The Indonesian authorities might not be able to identify the bodies of the Lebanese especially that some do not have their legal identification papers and we need to go there for help,” Abboud said.
Thousands of people make the perilous journey to Australia annually, risking death for a chance of a new life in Australia.
Australia has recently changed its policy toward asylum-seekers who arrive by boat, they are now being treated similar to those who arrive by plane and can be turned away.
Caretaker Justice Minister Shakib Qortbawi tasked Lebanon prosecutors Friday with launching an investigation into the incident.
The incident continued to draw reactions from officials.
Akkar MP Nidal Tohme also issued a statement blaming the state for the decision of the migrants to leave Lebanon and he offered his condolences to the victims’ relatives.
“The neglect of the state to Akkar residents and their deprivation and leaving them alone to face poverty and unemployment is what led the sad citizens to venture to the unknown,” he said.
He also said that the residents of the northern district and lawmakers should launch a cry to end neglect in Akkar and Lebanon.
Former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said that the “tragic drowning of the Lebanese citizens in Indonesia should be a wakeup call for officials,” according to a statement from his office.
“We have to wake up and face the fact that there is a major problem suffered by the Lebanese people and it is that they cannot build their future in their own country,” he said.
Siniora contacted Mikati over the incident and called for speeding up the procedure of returning the bodies to the country.
For his part, Speaker Nabih Berri followed up on the incident in contact with President Michel Sleiman.
A statement from Sleiman’s office said consultations between the president, the speaker and the caretaker PM led to agreeing on asking relevant authorities to secure what is needed for the return of the bodies and travel home for the survivors.
They also agreed on asking relevant judicial and security agencies to prosecute sides deceiving citizens and securing their trips abroad to such dangerous conditions.
In a statement, Berri also called on authorities in Indonesia and Australia to launch an investigation to determine who is responsible for the incident.