Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Twelve Sri Lankans lost in asylum sea tragedy

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A DOZEN Sri Lankan asylum-seekers are feared dead after their vessel capsized in heavy seas as they sailed direct from Sri Lanka, apparently in an attempt to avoid the Rudd government's "Indonesian solution".

As aircraft from the Royal Australian Air Force and the Royal Flying Doctor Service scoured the Indian Ocean for any trace of those still unaccounted for, a Newspoll taken for The Australian showed support for the Rudd government had slumped as the asylum-seeker debate dominated the headlines.

Primary support for the Coalition rose seven points to 41 per cent, level with the ALP, which also polled 41 per cent. The government's two-party preferred lead was slashed to four points from 18 points in the previous Newspoll.

Kevin Rudd spoke yesterday to Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa about improving housing needs in the country and despatched senior diplomat John McCarthy to Colombo in an effort to stem the flow of boatpeople.

Defending his government's border protection regime, the Prime Minister said the government's policy was responsible and balanced, but hardline in dealing with people-smugglers.

"I am under no illusions that this policy and our implementation of it will be in any way popular in the Australian community," he said. "These are difficult challenges."

But Mr Rudd said the first priority was to "fully prosecute" the rescue of the Sri Lankans in the Indian Ocean. The crisis comes as senior Australian officials were despatched to a secret meeting in Jakarta today for talks on government plans to help fund Indonesian efforts to disrupt people-smuggling.

The latest boatload to be detected sank 648km northwest of Cocos Island late on Sunday night, following a series of distress calls to Australian authorities.

Sources told The Australian last night that the 39 people on board the boat were asylum-seekers believed to have sailed directly from Sri Lanka.

Home Affairs Minister Brendan O'Connor said last night that at least one asylum-seeker was confirmed dead and grave fears were held for another 11.

Last night 27 people had been rescued, some after up to 16 hours in the water, clinging to debris.

Eighteen survivors were last night aboard the bulk freighter LNG Pioneer and a further nine were on the Taiwanese fishing trawler Kuamg.

The drama began with a distress call from passengers aboard the boat to the Australian Maritime Safety Authority at 7am on Sunday.

The trawler and the bulk freighter responded to a general alert for help to the sinking vessel.

The trawler, which arrived first at about 4pm, found the boat taking on water.

The trawler was followed by the Pioneer, which arrived to find debris from the boat strewn about the water and a "significant" number of the passengers in the ocean.

Andy Hill, general manager of MO-LNG, managers of the Pioneer, gave an account of the rescue conducted by the freighter's 28 crew.

"When they arrived on the scene there were remnants of a boat and a significant number of people in the water," he told The Australian yesterday.

"At that particular time it was dark or just on darkness arrival, and the crew responded to the incident in a seamanlike way."

Three aircraft were sent to conduct searches yesterday - an RAAF P3 plane and two commercial planes, including one chartered by the Flying Doctor Service.

The 277m Pioneer was travelling from Hazira, on India's west coast, to Darwin when it assisted with the rescue, which occurred within the Australian search and rescue zone.

The Pioneer's intended destination increases the likelihood the survivors will be taken to Christmas Island, with Mr O'Connor saying the ship's master would be consulted on the decision.

"We will do everything we can to recover all passengers and prevent people, wherever possible, perishing in this tragic situation," Mr O'Connor told reporters in Melbourne yesterday.

"At that point the masters of the vessels will determine, in conjunction with the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, where the safest port will be. That may well be Christmas Island, it may well be another port."

The nearest Australian navy ship was yesterday at least 24 hours from the scene of the incident.

Mr Hill said the vessel's large size made rescue efforts difficult.

"It is a challenging and fairly difficult process," he said.

Chief of the Defence Force Angus Houston said yesterday the boat appeared to have capsized during the rescue, plunging those aboard into the heavy seas.

"I understand when the first ship got there, this vessel was still intact," he said. "Somehow or other during the process of interaction between the ship and trawler and also the stricken vessel, there's been a capsize and people ended up in the water."

That account was backed by Mr Hill, who said the master of the Pioneer had given a similar account.

"But that would be a summation of the situation as he found it on arrival," he said. "As I say, on arrival there were people in the water and there was debris."

However, Mr O'Connor's spokesman cautioned last night that it was not certain the boat had capsized, only that it had sunk by the time the Pioneer arrived.

Mr Hill said there were no indications the boat had been scuttled to ensure the rescue of the passengers, a common tactic among asylum boats.

"The weather conditions were quite poor at the time, choppy seas and quite windy," Mr Hill said.

Yesterday, refugee advocate Pamela Curr said Tamil community leaders had told her the boat had sailed direct from Sri Lanka, apparently to avoid detection in Indonesia or Malaysia.

"They knew that the boat was coming," Ms Curr told The Australian. "They're not going through Indonesia any more. They can read the papers just like the rest of us."

Tamil community leader Ramalingam Wickramasingham, of Justice and Freedom for Ceylon Tamils, said Tamils in Columbo were phoning relatives in Australia worried that the downed boat was carrying loved ones.

"That's what we fear, that they are Sri Lankans," he told The Australian.

Opposition immigration spokeswoman Sharman Stone said if the boat had sailed from Sri Lanka in an attempt to avoid the Rudd government's "Indonesia solution", it represented a grim development.

"If they are in fact asylum-seekers, if they are in fact from Sri Lanka and they've taken a longer route around to avoid the so-called Indonesia solution, then quite clearly this is going to be a very serious problem in terms of danger to the client," Dr Stone said.

"The smugglers never buy decent boats. It's a one-way trip they don't charter."

Yesterday, Indonesian foreign ministry officials decried what they said was the lack of an adequate "Australian solution" to the boatpeople problem.

Indonesian spokesman Sujatmiko said today's talks would determine whether the Customs vessel Oceanic Viking's permission to remain in Indonesian waters off the city of Tanjung Pinang with 78 protesting Sri Lankan asylum-seekers on board would be extended beyond this Friday.

Describing the crisis talks as a "very, very high senior official meeting", he said they would "discuss the issue of this stalemate as well as the long-term issue, how we resolve this problem when similar issues arise".

© The Australian

Related Links:

Many missing near Cocos Islands - Al Jazeera
Hopes fade in boat disaster search - ABC News
Asylum Seekers Feared Dead After Boat Capsize, Australian Says - Bloomberg

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