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Boat with possible asylum seekers capsizes off Indonesia; 4 dead

By Hilary Whiteman, CNN
updated 10:47 PM EDT, Wed July 24, 2013
An Indonesian police man carries an exhausted young boy from the water near Cidaun, West Java on Wednesday.
An Indonesian police man carries an exhausted young boy from the water near Cidaun, West Java on Wednesday.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ship carrying at least 160 people capsizes off coast of West Java
  • Four confirmed dead, others transferred to temporary shelters, clinics
  • Indonesia rescue official says boat was believed to be carrying asylum seekers
  • Some passengers refused to speak to officials, others ran away

(CNN) -- Two children are among four people who died after a boat carrying at least 160 people capsized off the coast of West Java, Indonesian rescue officials said Wednesday.

Fisherman, who saw people floating in the water on Tuesday night, alerted search and rescue teams that worked in the dark to find survivors, said Rochmali, the head of Indonesia's National Search and Rescue Team. Rochmali -- like many Indonesians -- only uses one name.

Some made it to land on their own and were found along the beach just off Cianjur District, south of Bandung, the capital of West Java Province, he said.

So far, 156 survivors have been taken to temporary shelters and clinics on the island. Rescuers in rubber boats and local fisherman continue to search the water for remaining survivors in choppy sea within 5 nautical miles of the shore.

We don't know how many people were on board, because the survivors are reluctant to tell us.
Rochmali, Indonesia search and rescue

Some media reports suggested that as many as 60 people were missing, though that number could not be confirmed as the boat was not registered and carries no official passenger list.

"We don't know how many people were on board, because the survivors are reluctant to tell us," said Rochmali.

It's uncertain where the boat was headed, although Rochmali said Indonesian officials believe they were on their way to Australian waters near Christmas Island to seek possible asylum.

READ MORE: Riots as Australia shuts door on asylum

"They don't want to talk to officials frankly about their intention and who they are. Even some of them tried to run away, or maybe already run away after being saved," he said.

Those who had spoken to officers claimed they were nationals of Iran, Iraq, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, Rochmali said. "But whether it is true or not, we still have to reconfirm," he added.

Last week, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced that asylum seekers arriving in Australian waters would no longer be resettled in the country.

Instead, they'll be sent to Papua New Guinea for processing and will be settled there if found to be refugees. If their bids fail, they'll be sent home or to another country, Rudd announced.

READ MORE: Why Australia's asylum plan won't work

Rights groups have condemned the policy, accusing the Australian government of shirking its responsibility for asylum seekers.

"It cannot possibly be presented as an example of regional cooperation because it is little more than a wealthy country paying a much weaker neighbor to take on its international responsibilities to people seeking asylum," said Paul Power, chief executive officer of the Refugee Council of Australia.

On Wednesday, Rudd said the tragedy off West Java emphasized the need for policy changes to send "a clear message to people smugglers to stop sending people by boat to Australia."

"We're seeing too many drownings, we're seeing too many sinkings, too many innocent people being lost at sea," according to Rudd.

Australian agencies were monitoring the situation, he said.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority declined to comment on the rescue to CNN, saying it was being handled by Indonesian authorities.

Journalist Rudy Madanir contributed to this report.

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