Take us to Australia, rescued asylum seekers plead
MICHAEL BACHELARD AND JUDITH IRELAND
Fifty-four asylum seekers plucked alive from the sea yesterday are being transferred to an Indonesian boat mid-ocean and will be returned to the port of Merak today.
Up to 100 asylum seekers are feared dead and questions are being asked about Indonesia's search and rescue capacity after survivors were discovered almost 24 hours after they first issued a distress call while only eight nautical miles off the coast of Java.
Officials in Indonesia said the transfer was due to begin this morning (NZ time), despite survivors' request to be taken to Australia.
The search will continue at first light, about 11.30am today (NZ time), for about 96 people still missing from the asylum boat that sank just a few nautical miles off the coast of Java on Wednesday morning.
The window for survival of anybody still in the water is now closing, 48 hours or more since the overcrowded wooden fishing vessel went down in rough seas.
The boat was said to have been carrying 150 ethnic Hazara men, women and children fleeing persecution by the Taleban in Afghanistan.
Forty-six people, including three described yesterday as having serious injuries, will be moved from from a number of ships to an Indonesian search-and-rescue vessel. Six will be transferred from bulk carrier APL Bahrain, which was the first ship to locate the site of the disaster early yesterday.
The crew of the Australian naval ship, HMAS Maitland, rescued 33 people yesterday evening (including one person suffering a shark bite) and 15 survivors were pulled from the seas by the crew of the bulk carrier, APL Bahrain.
Three other merchant vessels also rescued survivors.
The Australian Maritime Safety Authority said that the search and rescue operation would include three merchant vessels and two aircraft from Perth.
As the search continued, questions were also being raised about the initial response to the unfolding tragedy.
The boat had been on its way to Christmas Island when its pump failed, prompting a distress call to AMSA at about 1.30am local time (6.30am NZ time) on Wednesday.
However, a search co-ordinated by the Indonesian search and rescue agency, BASARNAS, initially failed to locate the sinking boat or any survivors.
That search was then abandoned.
It was not until early Thursday morning that the first survivors were found after AMSA provided the Indonesians with an updated likely position for the boat based on drift modelling.
The Bahrain, which had responded to an earlier broadcast to shipping, was then tasked to attend the broader search area.
It appears the arrival of the Bahrain and other merchant vessels, almost 24 hours after the boat sank, may have been too late for many of the asylum seekers.
Australia's Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare has defended the search effort.
"Don't underestimate how hard it is to find people in the middle of the sea," Mr Clare said.
"It's very, very hard and authorities have been working this issue since the time they got the original information yesterday morning."
Mr Clare also warned that people smugglers were rushing to get people on boats before detention centres on Nauru and Papua New Guinea's Manus Island are up and running.
"People smugglers are running a closing-down sale," he said.
The comments come ahead of a visit by Mr Clare to Jakarta next week where the issue of search and rescue is set to be discussed.
Plans to boost maritime co-operation between Australia and Indonesia, aimed at stemming the flow of asylum seeker boats to Christmas Island, are also expected to feature on the agenda.