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Afghans among 54 rescued from asylum boat

31 august 2012, 13:20
Afghans were among the 54 survivors from an asylum-seeker boat that disappeared two days ago off the Indonesian coast, but hopes of finding about 100 more missing were fading fast on Friday, AFP reports.

An AFP reporter on a rescue boat said he saw four Afghan survivors and a bodybag on board. They had been in the water for at least 24 hours when they were plucked to safety.

"All survivors, including three with injuries, will be taken to Merak, Indonesia, for medical attention," the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) said.

The Australia-bound wooden boat carrying about 150 people including children sent a distress signal early on Wednesday morning. It was about eight nautical miles from the main Indonesian island of Java.

Alerted by Australia, Indonesia sent out a rescue team but 10 hours later abandoned the search. Australian authorities took it up again, and by late Thursday said 55 people had been pulled from the water.

Australian authorities revised the number of survivors down to 54 after learning one of those recovered was dead. They were handed over to Indonesian rescue teams and would be taken to the port of Merak.

But hopes were diminishing of finding anyone else alive after two days in the water.

"We have a window of opportunity -- people can survive in the sea for up to 36, maybe 48 hours," Australian Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare told reporters.

Indonesian and Australian rescuers said they would not abandon the search.

"The standard search period for us is seven days," Gagah Prakoso, a spokesman for Indonesia's National Search and Rescue Agency (Basarnas), told AFP.

"We're now focusing efforts on evacuating the survivors. There are three Indonesian boats so far taking part in the rescue -- one Basarnas boat, one navy ship and one marine police boat."

Three merchant ships and two Australian aircraft were also scouring the water, AMSA said.

In Australia, the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper reported that the rickety vessel was organised by a 25-year-old Pakistani people-smuggler.

Australia is facing a steady influx of asylum-seekers arriving by boat, many of whom use Indonesia as a transit hub, paying people-smugglers for passage on leaky wooden vessels after fleeing their home countries.

More than 300 boatpeople have died en route to Australia this year, with vessels being intercepted by the Australian navy on almost a daily basis, including one carrying 31 people late Thursday.

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