Updated: Wed, 24 Jul 2013 12:23:38 GMT | By Agence France-Presse

Indonesia searches for missing boatpeople

Rescuers searched for more survivors off Indonesia's Java island Wednesday after an Australia-bound boat carrying asylum-seekers sank, leaving at least nine dead as 189 were saved.


Indonesia searches for missing boatpeople

Survivors rest in a village center in Cidaun, West Java province on July 24, 2013. Rescuers are searching the seas off Indonesia's Java island for possibly dozens of asylum-seekers missing after their Australia-bound boat sank, leaving at least three dead, with 157 saved, an official said.

Five children, including an 18-month-old baby, and a pregnant woman were among the nine confirmed dead, local police spokesman Achmad Suprijatna told AFP.

West Java province police spokesman Martinus Sitompul said 189 had now been rescued. He estimated around 200 people had been aboard the boat that began sinking Tuesday evening, but a survivor said the number was closer to 250.

The boat left Indonesia just days after Canberra announced a tough new policy -- that asylum-seekers who arrive by boat will no longer be resettled in Australia, even if they are granted refugee status.

Instead, they could be resettled in poverty-stricken Papua New Guinea. Before the new policy announced Friday, new arrivals were already being taken to PNG or Nauru for processing of their asylum claims.

An AFP reporter who spoke to survivors said a group of 38, including women and children, had swum for their lives in darkness for up to four hours in high seas to reach the shore Tuesday night.

Ragunada, 30, from Sri Lanka said he and his children had used floats they found on the boat to help them swim to shore.

"I tried to save my children. They used floats and then tried to swim. After three or four hours, we arrived at the village," he told AFP.

Others were plucked from the sea by fishermen and other rescuers.

Chief of the rescue operation Rochmali, who goes by one name, said the asylum-seekers had been given food and water and would later be questioned by immigration officials.

"We have to do proper checks, but they say they're from Iraq, Iran and Sri Lanka," he said.

Boats carrying rescued survivors continued to reach the shore off the small fishing village of Cidaun in the late afternoon.

"We are still waiting for two boats to return. We will continue to search until sunset," Rochmali said, adding the search would continue in the morning.

 The boatpeople had set off from southwestern Java before the vessel sank, Rochmali said, adding fishermen had reported the incident and tried to save the asylum-seekers.

Indonesia's rescue agency was alerted to the incident by Australian authorities on Tuesday evening, Rochmali said.

The boat was headed for Australia's Christmas Island when it began taking on water, 42-year-old Sri Lankan survivor Obijet Roy told AFP.

Speaking in broken English, he described how terrified passengers jumped into the sea.

"Water from bottom of the ship is going up and then the passenger panic. Then they down to the sea," said Roy, who said he was with three friends.

Some asylum-seekers were wearing life vests, while others were clinging to pieces of wood when the boat went down, he said.

According to Roy, 250 asylum-seekers, mostly Sri Lankans, had travelled to Cianjur from a shelter in Bogor city on six buses to make the treacherous boat journey.

Villager Harun, 49, said he had seen the distressed asylum-seekers coming ashore in Cidaun.

"It was a shocking sight to see clusters of migrants at the beach. More and more came swimming to the shore," he said.

Australia's Daily Telegraph newspaper quoted a man named Soheil as saying he was the only survivor of a group of 61 Iranians he was travelling with.

"We have problem with motor after two hour. For three hours, we try to come back (to shore)," he said, adding the boat began to fall apart.

Soheil said the captain -- whom he said was a Sri Lankan man using a Malaysian crew -- abandoned them.

"The captain go to small boat," he told the Telegraph. "He no help me, he no help children, he no help baby."

Asked about the tragedy, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd Wednesday defended his policy, aimed at stemming the number of asylum-seekers arriving in the country by boat. A record 15,000 landed in 2012 and more than 15,000 have arrived so far this year.

He told reporters it was "about sending a very clear message to people-smugglers that if you try to come to Australia by boat you'll not be settled in Australia".

Hundreds have drowned making the journey -- as recently as last week a boat sank, killing four people.

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