Many feared drowned in Indonesian ferry disaster

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The Independent Online

About 38 people were missing and feared drowned on Saturday after a fiber glass boat crammed with at least 80 people capsized in the Straits of Malacca on its way from Indonesia to Malaysia, maritime officials said.

About 38 people were missing and feared drowned on Saturday after a fiber glass boat crammed with at least 80 people capsized in the Straits of Malacca on its way from Indonesia to Malaysia, maritime officials said.

Rescuers from both countries have recovered eight bodies and rescued 34 people so far and news reports said most of the missing passengers - many of them women - may have drowned in the rough seas.

The boat was hit by strong waves after it left Dumai on the Indonesian island of Sumatra and went down close to the Malaysian shore on Wednesday night. Passing merchant vessels noticed some of the survivors and alerted marine police on Friday.

At least 27 Indonesians have been rescued by the navy and fishing boats, said an Indonesian navy officer, Sgt. Mulyadi who, like many Indonesians, uses one name. Seven others were rescued by Malaysian boats.

Seven bodies were found by Indonesian rescuers while Malaysian police discovered the body of a woman within the wreckage of the boat, which was later towed to the nearby coastal town of Port Dickson, about 60 kilometers (37 miles) south of Kuala Lumpur.

Malaysian and Indonesian officials say between 73 to 80 people were crammed in the fiberglass fishing boat, the kind often used by poor Indonesians to sneak into Malaysia to find employment.

"The search and rescue is still going on. We've alerted all merchant ships that are passing by the Straits of Malacca to be on the lookout for survivors or bodies," said S. Arumugam, an officer at Kuala Lumpur's Maritime Rescue and Coordinating Center.

Arumugam said many survivors may have reached the shores safely without the knowledge of the authorities.

"Because they are illegal immigrants, they might have tried to make their own way back to Indonesian shores."

Malaysian police said search operations, suspended Friday night, had resumed soon after dawn Saturday but no survivors or bodies had been found until midday.

Three Malaysian marine police boats were involved in the search, Abdul Rahman Mahamud, police chief of Port Dickson town, was quoted as saying by Bernama news agency.

Saturday's Malaysian dailies, quoting survivors, said the boat was carrying about 100 people and at least 90 of them may have drowned.

Six of the seven people who were rescued by Malaysian boats had been admitted to a hospital near Port Dickson. All of them were later brought to a district police station for questioning.

"Once investigations are over, they will be sent over (to) the immigration office for deportation next week," said police spokesman Khairuddin Harahap.

Cumbani, a woman survivor from East Java, told reporters that the boat left Dumai for Malaysia late Tuesday but turned back after it developed engine trouble. It capsized several hours later.

"I don't know what happened to the others after the boat overturned. Probably many died," said Cumbani. "I managed to cling onto the boat."

She said she saw eight passengers who had been clinging to the hull being swept away by strong waves.

"We saw them being washed away and screaming for help," The Star daily quoted her as saying.

Malaysia, a country of 22 million, employs nearly 2 million foreign workers, mostly from Indonesia. Thousands of Indonesians also work illegally in Malaysia, mostly as house maids and construction laborers.

Police routinely arrest illegal immigrants and deport them across the 70-kilometer (44-mile) strip of water that separates peninsular Malaysia from Indonesia's Sumatra island.

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