Indonesia finds missing asylum seeker boat

Indonesian authorities said Saturday they had found a boat reported missing en route to Australia and that the dozens of asylum seekers it was carrying were believed to have fled.

Authorities had been searching for the boat since the mostly Afghan asylum seekers on board made a distress call to Australia on Wednesday, saying they were in rough seas and their boat was sinking.

Refugee advocates who said 60 asylum seekers were on board alerted Australian authorities, who passed on the information to Indonesian officials.

Indonesian authorities said they had located the missing vessel late on Friday on Lombok island, which lies just east of the popular resort island of Bali, although residents said they spotted the asylum seekers on Wednesday.

"People in Lombok informed us that they saw the boat arrive on the shore on Wednesday, and that people came ashore and ran off," Nanang Sigit, a search and rescue official in West Nusa Tenggara province told AFP.

"We were not alerted immediately, so we only found the boat Friday night. We're now working with police and are conducting a search on the island."

Mataram city search and rescue chief Marsudi said some residents reported spotting the asylum seekers in a forest.

"Some members of the community reported that they saw foreigners in the jungle around 10 kilometres (six miles) from the beach where the boat was spotted," Marsudi said.

Ian Rintoul of Brisbane-based Refugee Action Network told AFP he believed the vessel has still been at sea as late as Friday, when he last spoke to the asylum seekers via mobile phone.

"If they found a boat on the island Wednesday, then it's not the right boat," he said.

"When I spoke to them last, I could hear the wind and water in the background. They said the boat had taken a lot of water."

Indonesian officials said they were calling off the search for the vessel, apparently satisfied they had found the right boat, based on residents' reports that more than 50 people of Afghan appearance got off the boat and ran.

An AFP correspondent saw the boat on Bumbangku beach in southern Lombok, saying the 10-metre (yard) long wooden vessel had a fine crack about seven metres long along its floor, and that water had seeped through.

The boat was full of empty instant noodle packets and water bottles.

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.

"Asylum seekers coming to Australia by boat face very real risks and we need to work together now to prevent another tragedy from occurring," Australian Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said.

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

Last week, a Singapore-registered tanker rescued around 120 Australia-bound asylum seekers -- all men 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.

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