13 Apr 2013

Fears remain for 60 after asylum boat sinking

5:51 pm on 13 April 2013

Indonesia is yet to launch an aerial search for scores of missing asylum seekers amid conflicting reports surrounding a boat that sank while heading for Australia.

It's believed that at least 14 asylum seekers have been rescued by fishermen off the coast of West Java, but there are fears for almost 60 others who remain missing.

Details of the unfolding tragedy emerged after authorities in Indonesia spent the day scrambling for information following reports that an asylum seeker vessel had sunk earlier on Friday.

But Habibullah Hashimi, one of 14 men plucked from the water by fishermen off the coast of Sukabumi in West Java, has told AAP that he was on a boat that sank on Wednesday morning.

The 29-year-old confirmed that at least five other passengers had drowned, adding that he had been in the water for about 24 hours before help finally came.

There were 72 people aboard the vessel, he said, all ethnic Hazara from Afghanistan. "We saw about five people dead. They were in the water."

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) had earlier reported having received information that a boat may have sunk in the Sunda Strait at about midnight on Friday.

"Some passengers may have been rescued by a fishing vessel," an AMSA spokeswoman said.

The information was in turn passed on to the Indonesian national search and rescue agency BASARNAS but it was unable to locate the area where the incident was believed to have occurred.

Provincial search and rescue offices in Jakarta and Lampung on the island of Sumatra also had little idea of what had happened, or where to look for survivors.

Indonesian authorities on Friday evening had not yet dispatched any helicopters or search and rescue vessels to look for survivors.

In August last year, BASARNAS was criticised over their response to the sinking of an asylum seeker vessel in the same patch of water.

More than 100 asylum seekers drowned on that occasion but it was later revealed that an aerial search was not launched until six hours after the vessel first made a distress call.

It was almost 24 hours before the first survivors were pulled from the water.