Navy scours sea for survivors near Indonesia as 100 feared dead
Paul Maley and Lauren Wilson
August 31, 2012 7:39AM
AUSTRALIAN navy personnel are continuing to search for survivors from the latest asylum-seeker disaster amid fears up to 100 men, women and children perished at sea after their boat sank off the coast of Indonesia.
As the desperate rescue effort continued, a delegation of Australian officials was preparing to travel to Indonesia to clarify Australia's role in responding to disasters within Indonesian waters after it took rescuers nearly 24 hours to locate survivors from yesterday's sinking.
Merchant vessels and HMAS Maitland yesterday pulled 54 passengers alive from the ocean. There was no sign of the doomed boat, which was believed to be carrying about 150 asylum-seekers.
A merchant vessel responding to a distress call issued by Australian authorities, the MV Bahrain, pulled six Afghan men from the sea early yesterday.
By late last night, merchant vessels and the HMAS Maitland had rescued another 48 survivors from the ocean near the Sunda Strait. The most influential people in Sport
All survivors, including three with injuries, will be taken to Merak in Indonesia, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said this morning.
The initial rescue occurred almost 24 hours after passengers on the boat made two panicked phone calls to Australian authorities, prompting fresh questions about the capacity of the Indonesians to respond effectively to disaster within their waters.
Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare said "grave fears" were held for those on the boat who had not yet been accounted for.
"I've been saying now for about six months that people-smugglers are running a closing-down sale," he said yesterday, referring to the sharp increase in boat arrivals. "They're telling people, get on the boat before there's no more chance to come to Australia. That's been happening now for a number of months."
Asylum-seeker boats continue to arrive in Australia despite the government's decision earlier this month to accept the recommendations of the report led by former Defence chief Angus Houston to reopen offshore processing centres on Nauru and Papua New Guinea's Manus Island. A total of 1864 asylum-seekers have arrived on 32 boats this month, eclipsing last month's record of 1798 on 32 boats.
The latest drama began at 4.20am AEST on Wednesday when AMSA received a distress call from someone on the boat. A second call at 5.05am gave the location as eight nautical miles southwest of Java. The boat's engine had reportedly stalled and it was taking on water.
Women and children were among those on board, AMSA was told.
Basarnas was alerted and assumed responsibility for coordinating the rescue while the AMSA's Rescue Coordination Centre issued a distress call on behalf of the boat to all merchant vessels in the area. Two Indonesian helicopters were dispatched, but did not arrive at the search site till mid-afternoon.
Finding nothing, they called off the search.
But using drift modelling technology, which the Indonesians do not have, and satellite telephone positioning data, AMSA nominated a second possible location for the boat, this one 45 nautical miles off the Javanese coast.
The Bahrain was directed to the location and at about 3.30am yesterday found the first of the asylum-seekers - six Afghan men - in the water about 45 nautical miles off Java. The men used whistles to help attract the attention of the ship's crew.
"They are OK and we changed their clothes and gave them some water and food and now they are sleeping," the chief officer of the Bahrain, Lipan Adrian, told The Australian. "He said there were women and children on board the boat but those we rescued are all men."
AMSA asked that a Customs and Border Protection Dash 8 aircraft that was conducting a five-hour surveillance flight from Christmas Island also check the area. But, low on fuel it returned to Christmas Island and was unable to return to the search site as its crew were about to exceed the maximum number of hours they can legally stay in the air.
Sources within Jakarta people-smuggling circles said the smuggler responsible for the boat was a little-known operator called Haji Ghulam or Hassan. None of the passengers in a boat he sent had been heard from by friends or relatives since early Tuesday.
About 300 asylum-seekers have lost their lives journeying from Indonesia to Australia in the past three months alone.
Indonesia's limited ability to search for and assist stricken asylum boats has meant Australian vessels have increasingly been required to operate within Indonesian waters.
The Houston panel into asylum policy recommended Australia develop joint operational guidelines for managing ocean search and rescues across the region, and address the need for any further regional or national codifications.
Yesterday, a spokesman for Mr Clare said a ministerial delegation would travel to Jakarta next week to discuss rescue protocols between the two countries governing rescue arrangements. Mr Clare played down suggestions the Indonesians had been slow to respond. "Don't underestimate how hard it is to find people in the middle of the sea," he said. "It's very, very hard , and the authorities have been working since the time they got the original information early yesterday morning."
But opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison said the talks should have taken place months ago. "They needed to be up in Indonesia talking to their counterparts getting the protocols in place about who responds and where the rescued were taken," he said. "The first thing that needed to be done was for there to be a clear understanding of the search and rescue arrangements. That was an urgent priority and it's now September."
ADDITIONAL REPORTING LANAI VASEK, PETER ALFORD
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