TRIPOLI, Lebanon: Residents of the northern village of Qabeet expressed solidarity Sunday with the relatives of the victims who died in the Indonesian boat accident as the death toll rose to 26 Lebanese and people traded accusations over who they hold responsible.
Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati instructed Lebanese authorities and the embassy in Jakarta to take all necessary means to return survivors to the country and repatriate the bodies of the dead.
Lawmakers and figures gathered in the northern village to mourn the death of those who died in the boat tragedy and stand in solidarity with their relatives.
Local officials in Akkar confirmed 17 Lebanese were killed in the accident from their villages, while nine Lebanese from the Tripoli’s Bab al-Tabbaneh neighborhood were also confirmed dead by their relatives in the north.
Authorities say 18 Lebanese survived the accident but there are large numbers of people who are still missing or unaccounted for.
Village imam Sheikh Ali Khodr asked Lebanese authorities to repatriate the bodies of the victims and lashed out at the Australian government for failing to help the immigrants who include his cousin’s nine family members.
“Listen well, Australia: You are directly responsible for the drowning of the victims because they were in your territorial water and asked for help, food and fuel from the Australian authorities but to no avail,” Khodr said at the gathering.
“Where is justice, fairness and humanity in ... neglecting immigrants, turning them away and killing children?” he asked.
Australia’s Finance Minister Mathias Cormann defended his country’s response to the incident Sunday, saying the accident occurred in an area under Indonesian jurisdiction, AFP reported.
He also denied reports that authorities were notified in advance that the boat was in distress.
Last year, Australia adopted new measures to deal with thousands of immigrants arriving by boat. They are now being treated similar to those who arrive by plane and run the risk of being turned away.
Most of the Lebanese victims traveled to Indonesia using a valid passport with a tourist visa arranged by smugglers in Lebanon who then refered them, along with immigrants from Jordan and Iraq to a boat that would sail to Australia.
Residents say desperate people sell their properties and pay smugglers between $5,000 and $10,000 per person for the journey in search for a better life.
Most of Lebanon’s northern region includes some of the most deprived villages in the country where many residents live under the poverty line.
The circumstances of the incident remain unclear as relatives of survivors tell varying stories. Some claim the boat ran out of fuel while others maintain that Australia failed to help the immigrants.
In the neighborhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh which has been rocked by intermittent clashes between supporters and opponents of President Bashar Assad, residents blamed the government for its negligence in maintaining security and stability and decent living conditions.
Ahmad Abdo, the father of one of the missing in Indonesia, said his 24-year-old son, Mustafa, borrowed $10,000 from his friends to pay the trip's expenses offered by an office in the city run by people from the families of Teeba and Abu Saleh.
"My son is one of the good young boys who sought to live in peace and the economic and security problems we have suffered through forced him to immigrate and look for peace of mind," he said.
Addressing politicians and officials in Lebanon, the 70-year-old father said: "You should look after your people and your country and enough of your disputes.”
He also said he tried to convince his son on several occasions not to make the trip.
"What else could I have done? My son ran away from hunger and worries ... but he chose to search for a job to help me and now his fate is unknown," he said.
One of the participants in the gathering in Syria Street for those receiving condolences said his sister's son who survived the tragedy told him the boat was made of wood and was quickly filled with water before it sank.
Jamal al-Rai said his sister, his brother and one of his children died in the accident.
"My brother's wife told us that the boat driver lost his way and a big wave hit the ferry on its way back for fuel," he said.
Other relatives of victims accused a man called Abu Saleh, an Iraqi smuggler who is allegedly responsible for Friday's trip, of making the decision to sink the boat so that he would not offer people refunds.
Prime Minister-designate Tammam Salam described the boat incident as a "national tragedy"
"Those responsible for this are the ones imposing on Lebanon more misery and oppression while the country is drowning in disputes, chaos and corruption by those with influence who are dividing the country via sectarian lines for imaginary profits,” he said, according to his office.
-With additional reporting by Dana Khraiche