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More than 200 feared drowned as refugee boat capsizes off Indonesia

December 18, 2011 |  4:25 am


REPORTING FROM SEOUL -– Turbulent seas stymied efforts Sunday to locate more than 200 asylum seekers who authorities believe perished when their overcrowded ship sank off Indonesia's main island of Java.

Scrambling rescuers have rescued only 33 people from the choppy waters, including two children, ages 8 and 10, who were found clinging to debris five hours after the accident Saturday.

"It's really a miracle they made it," Kelik Enggar Purwanto, a member of the search and rescue team, told reporters.

Flight by boat from political persecution and economic isolation is perhaps one of the century’s most poignant images of Third World poverty. From Cuba to Indonesia, young and old alike have for years clutched each other aboard ramshackle boats, risking nature’s cruelest elements to achieve a chance at a free life.

On Saturday, the dangerously overcrowded wooden boat, packed with 250 people fleeing conditions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Turkey, was bound for Australia when it encountered powerful seas some 20 miles off southern Java, officials said.

Lt. Alwi Mudzakir, a maritime police officer overseeing the rescue, said the boat, loaded to twice its passenger capacity, began rocking -- prompting passengers to panic and to jostle, compounding the danger –- before the craft vanished into the water.

One survivor told reporters that people were so tightly packed, they had nowhere to go. "That made the boat even more unstable," said the 24-year-old Afghan migrant, adding that at least 50 of the asylum seekers were children.

One 25-year-old local fisherman told the Associated Press that he and fellow crew members spotted several dark dots in the distance Saturday afternoon –- soon encountering scores of hysterical and exhausted people in the turbulent waters, clinging to debris.

Spotting the tiny fishing boat -- big enough for only 10 people -– many began racing toward them. "They were all fighting, scrambling to get into my boat," said the fisherman, who managed to get 25 on board, many of them injured and all begging for water to drink.

Others were left behind, howling and pleading to be rescued, an image that haunts the fisherman.

“I'm so sad ... I feel so guilty, but there were just too many of them," he said. "I was worried if we took any more we'd sink, too."

Many people risk a perilous ocean voyage aboard rickety boats in hopes of reaching Australia’s tiny Christmas Island, where they face years in crowded, prison-like detention facilities. Australia's harsh immigration policy has loosened up in recent months, however.

Despite foul weather Sunday, four fishing boats, two helicopters and a navy ship already battled 13-foot waves in the search for survivors. Television footage showed Indonesian search and rescue teams headed to sea Sunday, empty body bags stacked on their boat decks.

Last month, a ship carrying about 70 asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan capsized off the southern coast of Central Java province, and at least eight people died.


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-- John M. Glionna

Photo: Asylum seekers are treated at a clinic in Trenggalek, Indonesia, after their boat capsized. Credit: Fully Handoko / EPA