There was no news of the 29 other crew reported on board the ships, the 96,000-ton Nagasaki Spirit, carrying oil to Brunei from Saudi Arabia, and a 27,000-ton container ship, Ocean Blessing.
'We have called for help from ships around the area of the accident,' an official of the government's search and rescue department in the western Indonesian town of Medan said.
He said vessels in the area had recovered the body of one crew member and rescued 16 other victims of the accident, which occurred about 10 miles off Sumatra.
A United States embassy spokesman in Kuala Lumpur said the Ocean Blessing was engulfed in flames and listing 16 degress to port, with its bow damaged.
He said two Sea Knight helicopters from the US Navy cargo vessel the Niagara Falls, carrying provisions for vessels of the Seventh Fleet, had reported seeing no serious oil spill.
The Niagara Falls was among the first vessels to join the rescue effort, using its helicopters to search for survivors. The spokesman said the Japanese-owned Nagasaki Spirit, which had a 25-man crew, was also ablaze. Lloyd's shipping casualty reporting service in London said the container ship had a crew of 21, according to its Hong Kong owners.
Jaffar Hassan, assistant shore officer in Malaysia's Maritime Rescue and Co-ordination Centre, said that the tanker captain reported his vessel had been fired on. But an Indonesian armed forces spokesman in Jakarta said he did not think it likely that the collision resulted from an attack by pirates.
'Pirate groups in the area are not armed with guns . . . they only have knives and daggers,' he said.