Indonesia searches for Afghan asylum seeker boat

Pikong Rachmawati
In this photograph released by Indonesian national search and rescue agency Basarnas, members of the Basarnas team perform an aerial search for a missing boat reportedly carrying dozens of Afghans along the coast of Maluk

Indonesia scoured its waters Friday for a drifting boat carrying dozens of Afghan asylum seekers as an Australian refugee advocate said they were still alive after fears the vessel had sunk.

The boat has been missing since it called for help near Sumbawa island in eastern Indonesia at 0650 GMT Thursday.

"I spoke to some of the people on the boat and they are OK but in need of assistance," said Ian Rintoul, who said he had received the telephone call in Brisbane at about 0600 GMT Friday.

"They still have no engine and they are still drifting."

There were fears the boat had sank after Rintoul spoke to people on board Thursday, and said they were in rough waters and extremely distressed.

He said there were more than 60 ethnic Hazara Afghans on board, including some families.

Rintoul said the vessel had been near Sumbawa on Thursday, but because it was without power and drifting those aboard no longer knew where they were.

Rintoul contacted the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA), which told Indonesian authorities.

Indonesian searchers said Friday they had found no sign of the boat despite a helicopter search.

Marsudi, head of the search and rescue agency of West Nusa Tenggara province said: "We will continue the air search tomorrow, but our boats are still looking in the area."

Marsudi said Indonesian authorities could not speak to anyone on board.

"My prediction is that they may be hiding somewhere because they were unwilling to talk to us when we reached them by phone last night (Thursday)."

Before dusk Friday, agency spokesman Putu Cakra said there were reports that a boat had been found at Kuta beach on Lombok near Bali but it was not yet clear if it was the missing vessel.

"AMSA has given us information that a boat was detected below Lombok island, but we cannot deploy a helicopter now because it is already dark," Cakra said.

Authorities said they would continue the search for a week if necessary.

A Hazara association in Australia, which also said it had spoken to people on the boat, called on Australian authorities to help with the search.

"We were last contacted by people on the boat at 12:20 am Friday Perth time (1620 GMT Thursday)," said Ali Mohammadi, head of Australia's United Hazara Association.

"We are requesting the Australian government to coordinate with the Indonesian government and provide whatever resources and assistance are needed to search for the boat. There are over 60 people's lives at stake."

Each year thousands of refugees -- many in recent months from Afghanistan -- try to make the perilous journey through Indonesian waters in hopes of seeking asylum in Australia.

Many of the overloaded and rickety boats used by people smugglers for the journey do not make it.

On Sunday a Singapore-registered tanker rescued around 120 Australia-bound asylum seekers -- all males and mostly Afghans and some Iranians -- from their sinking wooden boat.

They finally disembarked in Indonesia, after refusing to get off the docked tanker for two days, insisting they be allowed to continue their journey to Australia.

In December, a boat carrying around 250 mostly Afghan and Iranian asylum seekers sank in Indonesian waters on its way to Christmas Island, with only 47 surviving.