Red News Readers,
Ian Rintoul wins the prize for humanity. Meanwhile the BNP recommends sinking asylum seeker boats at sea (see below)
Mystery surrounds asylum seekers' boat
July 10, 2009
The fate of 74 Afghans is uncertain, write Tom Allard in Jakarta and Yuko Narushima.
IT WAS the curious incident of a boat in the night time, triggered by an asylum seeker's dying mobile phone and a concerned Australian supporter.
But confused messages between Australia and Indonesia leave mystery surrounding the fate of an estimated 74 people.
On Wednesday night, the Foreign Minister, Stephen Smith, said on television that a boat of asylum seekers missing off Indonesia had been found after an alert from the federal police.
"Indonesian maritime agencies have located the boat. All on board - which I understand to be some 70 people - are, on our advice, safe," he said.
But in Indonesia yesterday authorities could not confirm the boat's existence, let alone evidence of a rescue of the Afghan passengers.
Authorities had mistakenly briefed officials that the passengers were safe, Mr Smith said in a clarifying statement last night. In the meantime, police dodged questions on why Australia was monitoring waters so far away. A federal police spokesman said the minister's comments had been speculative.
"As the incident has occurred in Indonesian waters, it is a matter for Indonesian authorities," he said.
According to Customs and Border Protection, Australian police were contacted by Indonesian authorities on learning the boat was in trouble. "Our role was only to offer assistance," a spokesman said.
As Australian agencies flicked responsibility for information on the boat from one area to another, a refugee advocate, Ian Rintoul, tried to end the confusion.
He said he tipped off Australian border protection agencies after receiving text messages from Pakistan on Wednesday morning. He contacted a passenger's mobile and learnt the boat was taking on water, he said. The last text from the boat read: "My mobile has no power now. I can't contact you any more. May God help us."
There was little doubt from the messages the boat was headed for Australia. Mr Rintoul said the second last message was explicit. "I need help from Aus. Police not indonesian police. W will die but w won't go with indo. Police. I humbly request aus. Govt to help us. Plz plz plz," it said.
Yesterday, Indonesian authorities said they had not yet found the boat or anyone who had seen it. Family members of those on board contacted Mr Rintoul yesterday, telling him they had made their way to an unnamed island in Indonesia.
"My contacts in Pakistan definitely got the information they were on an island but there was no information that they had been rescued," he said.
Lieutenant-Colonel Toni Sjaiful, spokesman for the Indonesian Navy's eastern fleet, said navy and police boats had been searching since Wednesday morning around the Komodo Islands and south off the coast of West Timor.
"We have found nothing. No dead bodies floating, for instance, or anything that may indicate their whereabouts," Colonel Sjaiful said.
Mr Rintoul said it was highly unlikely the missing boat was a hoax. "If it was a hoax, it was an amazingly elaborate one. When I rang the people on the boat, you could hear the water lapping in the background," he said.
He had not been in contact with those on board since they reportedly found landfall.