Gov´t Sending Units To Find Missing Israelis

Israel is sending emergency teams to Southeast Asia to locate and help hundreds of Israelis who have not made contact with families or Foreign Ministry officials, raising fears about their fate.

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, | updated: 18:48

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Southeast Asia is a popular destination for young Israeli tourists just after completion of their army duty and government officials estimate about 7,000 Israelis are traveling in the areas hit by the devastating earthquake and tidal waves. More than 23,500 people, a figure that rises by the hour, are reported to have died as a result of the earthquake.

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz ordered a team of medical personnel and a unit to locate missing people to leave for the areas immediately. The Health Ministry also is organizing a medical unit to fly to Thailand, where several Israelis have been hospitalized. Israel already has dispatched an emergency medical team to Sri Lanka, the country hardest hit.

About 20 Israelis have been declared missing. The Foreign Ministry ordered consular workers to try to overcome communications breakdowns to reach stranded or injured Israelis. Latest estimates place the death toll at more than 23,000.

Several Israelis reported to be injured were on the island of Phuket near southern Thailand, according to the Foreign Ministry, and about 160 are on Andaman Island near India, where Foreign Ministry workers arrived Monday morning to search for them. Edmond Mishal, father of one of the girls in a group of 18 touring the island, said all his family can do is wait for news. "The fear is huge. There is a sense of helplessness. There is simply no communication with the islands," he said.

One Israeli tour guide on Phuket reported his group felt tremors from the huge tidal waves, which hit a different part of the island. He said they were stranded in the middle of the island, where the bridge to the mainland was destroyed. Their hotel was one of the few that was not severely damaged. The Foreign Ministry is trying to find means to rescue the group, as well as another one on a nearby island.

One family was encouraged after setting up an internet search site, where one island resident said all the Israelis were alive and well. The family said it "cannot rely on the information, but it is encouraging."

To eliminate bureaucracy, the Interior Ministry this morning (Monday) delivered 2,000 one-time laissez-passer documents to the Foreign Ministry in order to enable Israelis who have lost their documents to return home. Israelis who return home without their documents and who are able to prove that they were in the disaster area will be issued new passports free of charge.

In addition, the Population Authority will issue laissez-passer documents on the spot for family members seeking to leave for East Asia immediately in order to be with their relatives. El Al has announced it will not charge a change fee for Israelis wanting to return and also will allow those in Israel to postpone their departure without a penalty.