Six people were plucked alive from the ocean by a cargo ship Thursday after an asylum-seeker boat went missing off the Indonesian coast, but there was no sign of up to 144 others on board.
The recovery of the survivors by the APL Bahrain, after nearly a day in the water, came after Indonesian rescuers abandoned their search.
“We have had confirmation that six survivors have been rescued by a merchant vessel,” an Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) spokeswoman told AFP, adding that it was not clear if more people were in the sea.
“There are no other confirmed survivors so far. The person who called in the distress call said there were 150 people on board and it had engine trouble.”
Indonesia’s National Search and Rescue Agency (Basarnas) received an alert from AMSA early Wednesday that a boat was in distress between Java and Sumatra, 220 nautical miles from the Australian territory of Christmas Island.
Basarnas sent two police rescue boats and two helicopters but found nothing and returned to base, only for AMSA to task the Bahrain, which responded to an earlier broadcast to shipping, to attend a broader search area.
The captain of the Bahrain said screams and whistles alerted his crew as it scoured the Sunda Strait in darkness.
“We were doing scheduled searching. At the last moment when I was thinking to abort, I heard some noises, and we spotted them in the water,” Captain Manuel Nistorescu told the Sydney Morning Herald’s website.
“I (sent) a crew to get them and it was not easy… It was dark.”
He said the rescued men appeared to be in good condition, adding that they claimed the pump on their boat failed and the vessel began taking on water.
“They had an engine break and the water was coming, and the pump for pumping out the water was not working and the boat sinks. This is what I understand from them,” he said.
Australian Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare confirmed six people had been rescued and said there were serious concerns for those still missing, who include women and children.
“We have grave fears for a lot more,” he said, adding that the survivors would likely be taken to Indonesia.
“Don’t underestimate how hard it is to find people in the middle of the sea,” he added.
AMSA said three merchant vessels were now on the scene while two Indonesian search vessels were also heading to the area.
Australian naval vessel HMAS Maitland was expected to arrive later in the day and two Australian P3 Orion aircraft would also join the operation.
Australia is facing a steady influx of asylum-seekers arriving by boat, many of whom use Indonesia as a transit hub, paying people smugglers for passage on leaky wooden vessels after fleeing their home countries.
Canberra this month said 300 boatpeople had died en route to the country this year, with vessels being intercepted by the Australian navy on almost a daily basis.
Two weeks ago, Canberra announced its intention to transfer asylum-seekers to Nauru and Papua New Guinea in the Pacific as part of a tough new policy to deter them from making the dangerous sea voyage.
But more than 1,000 boatpeople have arrived since the policy was adopted.
“My message to them is, don’t get on the boat,” said Clare.
“What we’ve seen today is there is a real risk people will die… that people will end up at the bottom of the sea.” –AFP