Australian officials say boat carrying 100 asylum seekers from Indonesia could have sunk

By Rod Mcguirk, AP
Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Officials say asylum seeker boat could have sunk

CANBERRA, Australia — A boat carrying about 100 asylum seekers from Indonesia to Australia in October last year vanished without a trace and may have sunk, officials said Tuesday.

Australia had intelligence that the boat left an Indonesian port on Oct. 2 bound for Australia but it never arrived, Australian Customs and Border Protection Service chief executive Michael Carmody told a routine Senate inquiry into government operations.

Carmody declined to identify the sources of the intelligence.

Australia alerted the Indonesian authorities the next day of information that the boat could be in distress in Indonesian waters. Indonesia reported “they had not been able to identify any vessel in distress in the relevant area,” Carmody told the inquiry, without identifying the area.

He said Australian intelligence sources later reported that the boat was again headed for the Australian territory of Christmas Island, which is closer to the Indonesian archipelago than mainland Australia.

Australian coast guard aircraft searched the approaches to Christmas Island, where Australia has an immigration detention center, but the boat never arrived, Carmody said.

“The venture might have turned back to Indonesian waters,” he said, adding that it might have sunk.

Carmody’s deputy, Mike Pezzullo, said intelligence on the numbers of asylum seekers headed to Australia sometimes differed from the numbers who arrived, but never had so many remained unaccounted for.

“This case stands out in terms of the number of persons involved,” Pezzullo said.

Australia is increasingly targeted by asylum seekers from the Middle East and Asia who often fly to Indonesia, then pay people-smugglers to take them on the final leg by rickety boats.

Mohamad Heidari, an Afghan who settled in New York as a refugee in 2003, told The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper that he last heard from his brother, Habib Heidari, just before he boarded the boat with 100 other asylum-seekers for Australia. The younger brother had paid a smuggling network $12,000 to get his relative from Pakistan to Australia.

Panicked relatives were told that the boat had reached Australia safely by people-smuggling agents who demanded that final payments be made.

“They said we would hear in 10 or 12 days, but we haven’t heard anything,” Mohamad Heidari told the newspaper in Jakarta where he is searching for answers to his brother’s disappearance.

will not be displayed