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One survivor is loaded into an ambulance on Java AP/Press Association Images

Two hundred feared dead after asylum seeker boat sinks off Indonesia

Two children, aged eight and ten, were among a few survivors found clinging to wreckage.

RESCUERS BATTLED HIGH waves today as they searched for 200 asylum seekers feared dead after their overcrowded ship sank off Indonesia’s main island of Java.

So far only 33 people have been plucked alive from the choppy waters. Two were children, aged 8 and 10, found clinging to the broken debris of the boat five hours after the accident Saturday.

“It’s really a miracle they made it,” said Kelik Enggar Purwanto, a member of the search and rescue team, as horrifying accounts emerged of the disaster.

The boat – packed with 250 people fleeing economic and political hardship in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Turkey – was heading to Australia when it ran into a powerful storm 32km off Java’s southern coast.

It was hugely overloaded, carrying more than twice its capacity, said Lt Alwi Mudzakir, a maritime police officer overseeing rescue operations.

As strong waves rocked the vessel, panicked passengers started shoving one another, causing it to sway even more violently, he said.

Finally it disappeared into the dark waters.

A 25-year-old local fisherman, Jambe, told The Associated Press that he and his three-member crew spotted several dark dots in the distance on Saturday afternoon and decided to investigate.

They were horrified at what they found: more than 100 hysterical and exhausted people clinging to anything that floated.

On spotting their tiny fishing boat – big enough only for 10 people – survivors started racing toward them.

‘There were just too many of them’

“They were all fighting, scrambling to get into my boat,” Jambe said, adding in the end he managed to get 25 on board, many of them injured and all begging for water to drink.

Those left behind were screaming and crying.

“I’m so sad … I feel so guilty, but there were just too many of them,” said Jambe, who like many Indonesians uses only one name. “I was worried if we took any more we’d sink, too.”

Indonesia, a sprawling nation of 240 million people, has more than 18,000 islands and thousands of kilometres of unpatrolled coastline, making it a key transit point for smuggling migrants. Many risk a dangerous journey on rickety boats in hopes of getting to Australia.

Those on the ship that sank Saturday had passed through Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, days earlier without any legal immigration documents, according to police.

An unidentified group loaded them onto four buses and took them to a port, promising to get them to Australia’s tiny Christmas Island.

Local television showed a half-dozen survivors at a shelter in Trenggalek, the Javanese town closest to the scene of the sinking, some with dazed, empty expressions as they sat on the floor drinking and eating.

Several others were taken to a nearby hospital in critical condition.

One of the survivors, Esmat Adine, told the official news agency Antara that when the ship started to rock, people were so tightly packed, they had nowhere to go, exacerbating the problem.

“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.

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Associated Foreign Press
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