Search for asylum seeker boat abandoned

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As many as 150 asylum seekers are believed to have drowned on the way to Australia after the search for a boat that issued a distress call early on Wednesday was abandoned.

The search for the missing boat was called off on Wednesday afternoon amid fears it had sunk in waters off Ujung Kulon, an area on the western-most tip of Java and about 220 nautical miles from Christmas Island.

Gagah Prakoso, a spokesman with Indonesia’s search and rescue agency, BASARNAS, said teams deployed to the missing boat’s last known location had found no sign of the vessel.

“After hours of searching around the site where it’s said to be sunk, we found nothing. There’s no sign at all if the boat sank,” Mr Prakoso told AAP.

“Usually when a boat sinks, there should be a sign, maybe one or two people may be floating using parts of the boat.

“But there’s nothing.”

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) had passed on details of the distress call to BASARNAS at about 1.30am local time (4.30am AEST).

Two helicopters and three boats, including an Indonesian navy vessel, were deployed just after 7am local time to search for the asylum seekers.

The call to AMSA, made using a satellite phone, was the last contact with the missing boat.

The latest incident follows the deaths of about 300 asylum seekers since December along the same route, in the Sunda Strait between Java and Christmas Island.

It also comes ahead of high level talks between Australian and Indonesian officials in Jakarta next week where plans to enhance maritime co-operation, aimed at stemming the flow of asylum-seeker boat traffic, are set to be discussed.

The Indonesian Defence Ministry’s spokesman on international co-operation, Brigadier General Jan Pieter Ate, confirmed the talks – which will involve Australian Defence Minister Stephen Smith and Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare – would include plans to boost co-operation in search and rescue efforts involving asylum seeker boats in distress.

“The discussion would be exploring what kind of activities could be done together like if there’s a sea accident, and how the two countries can co-operate and share information about it,” he told AAP.

It’s understood a memorandum of understanding will be signed that would improve the ability of the nearest ship – Indonesian or Australian – to respond to emergency calls from vessels sailing between the countries.

“The boat was about 30 nautical miles (55.56km) from Ujung Kulon when it made the distress call,” Mr Prakoso later said.

© 2012 AAP

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