18 Dec 2011

Hope fades for survivors of wrecked asylum boat

10:34 pm on 18 December 2011

Rescuers in Indonesia are battling atrocious weather to search for hundreds of passengers missing from a boat that sank off the main island of Java on Saturday.

The wooden boat was believed to be heading for Australia, carrying asylum seekers mainly from Afghanistan and Iran.

It is unclear exactly how many people were on board, but estimates range from a reported 250 to nearly 400.

Senior emergency official Sahrul Arifin says hundreds of passengers are missing. Two bodies have been recovered and 87 people have been rescued.

Mr Arifin says strong waves wrecked the wooden boat about 90km out to sea.

"Our search and rescue team have begun sweeping the water around where the accident took place but we are now sending body bags to that area," he says.

Mr Arifin says the passengers were believed to be illegal migrants from countries such as Iran and Afghanistan.

Boat severely overcrowded

The Indonesian police told the state-run news agency Antara that the vessel appeared to have been carrying more than twice its capacity.

Survivor Esmat Adine, 24, an Afghan migrant, told the news agency the ship had started rocking violently from side to side, triggering panic among the tightly packed passengers.

"That made the boat even more unstable and eventually it sank," he said.

He said he and other survivors clung to parts of the wreckage until they were rescued by local fishermen.

He estimated that more than 40 children had been on the boat.

Mr Adine said the boat, believed to be a traditional fishing vessel with a capacity of about 100, had been heading towards Christmas Island.

Australia offers help

The ABC reports the Australian government has offered assistance in the search for survivors.

Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare says Australia is offering an Orion aircraft, but he has grave fears about finding survivors given they have been in the water for over 24 hours.

Many boat people from the Middle East and Asia use Indonesia as a transit point en route to Australia.