Search efforts intensified Saturday for an Indonesian boat which has gone missing after being seized and forced to sail to Australia by some 170 illegal Middle Eastern immigrants.
Three rescue ships had been scouring the Flores Sea for the Sinar Bontang since Thursday after the Indonesian navy saved one of the passengers of the ship, Yusac Andreas, on Wednesday, said navy spokesman First Admiral Franky Kaihatu.
The Sinar Bontang has been missing since Thursday after being seized by scores of Middle Eastern immigrants off the resort island of Lombok and forced to sail to Australia.
Andreas had jumped off the boat after the Middle Eastern immigrants had taken over the ship, originally destined to land in Mataram city in Lombok island from South Sulawesi, capital of Makassar.
"We deployed the rescue ships immediately after we received his (Andreas') accounts of the incident on Thursday. Until now, we still have no idea where the ship has gone," Kaihatu told AFP.
The commander of the naval station in Lombok, Colonel Pramono Hadi, told AFP that a separate navy ship had rescued a crew member of Sinar Bontang who had fled the boat with a safety raft on Wednesday.
"The crew member told the captain of the (navy) ship that there were about 170 Middle Easterns on board the boat," Hadi said.
Hadi said the crewman had said that the boat was 50 metres (165 feet) long and was made of wood.
Kaihatu said Andreas had not been able to give more details whether the Middle Eastern immigrants were being smuggled to Australia because he "is still under heavy trauma and physical ailments".
"He was heavily panicked and speaking incoherently when we interviewed him... so we still have no information whether the ship was smuggling the Middle Easterns," he added.
On October 19, a boat en route to Australia sank in the Java Sea, killing more than 350 Middle Eastern asylum-seekers on board. Only 44 survived.
The accident was thought to be the worst disaster involving Middle Easterners who use Indonesia as the last stepping stone to Australia, trusting their lives to people-smugglers using dilapidated and overloaded boats.
Senior police officers in Jakarta have admitted that it was possible rogue police officers took bribes from the smugglers and forced passengers of the ill-fated ship at gunpoint to stay on board.
The claims are currently under investigation by a special police team.
Australia and the UN refugee body have urged the Indonesian government to investigate the tragedy, including the reports of police collusion -- Jakarta, (AFP)
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