Death toll climbs to 15 in Indonesia boat sinking

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — The death toll from an overcrowded asylum seeker boat carrying more than 200 people that sank off Indonesia’s coast has climbed to 15 after four more bodies were recovered, a rescuer said Friday.

The women’s bodies were located late Thursday and early Friday near Ujung Genteng beach, about 50 kilometers (31 miles) west of where the overcrowded tugboat sank Tuesday off the coast of West Java, said Rochmali, a rescue official from the local search and rescue agency.

The exact number of people missing remains unclear because there was no manifest, but the boat was believed to be carrying about 204 people, of which 189 survived. Most were from Iran, Iraq and Sri Lanka, and bound for Australia. Search operations were set to stretch into Saturday.

Rochmali, who was searching for survivors by helicopter, said they have widened the search area following the current to the west up to 60 kilometers (37 miles), but there was no sign of any survivors Friday morning.

“The area was declared clean,” said Rochmali, who like many Indonesians uses a single name. “But we can still hope until tomorrow.”

The vast islands that make up Indonesia and its proximity to Australia’s Christmas Island make it a popular exit point for the perilous journey. Hundreds of asylum seekers from war-torn countries have died in recent years trying to make the trip on rickety fishing boats.

Last week, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd changed Australia’s refugee policy so that migrants who arrive by boat will no longer be allowed to settle in the country. Instead, they will be taken to the island nation of Papua New Guinea to be considered for resettlement there.

Also Friday, the Sri Lanka navy said that 73 people had been rescued and brought ashore after their boat making an illegal voyage to Australia broke down.

Navy spokesman Commander Kosala Warnakulasuriya said the merchant vessel was found drifting about 290 nautical miles southeast of Sri Lanka.

It is illegal in Sri Lanka to leave from unauthorized ports. The maximum sentence is five years in prison.

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