Australian authorities today said that five Sri Lankan asylum seekers are presumed dead after their boat went missing last week. The ‘Australian’ website said that a search and rescue operation for the missing Sri Lankans has been called off.
The men were traveling on an asylum boat carrying more than 60 people, including about 15 children, which was foundering 160 nautical miles west of the Cocos Islands.
On Wednesday, Customs and Border Protection Command alerted the Australian Maritime Safety Authority that the boat, which Customs had been tracking, was missing.
An RAAF P3 Orion, a Border Protection Command Dash-8 and a rescue Dornier aircraft scoured a 33,000-square-nautical-mile search zone, about 270km northwest of the Cocos Islands.
The following evening, the boat was found drifting, its engine disabled. Four merchant vessels in the vicinity were sent to its aid and eight of the boat's passengers were taken aboard a Russian bulk carrier, the MV Postojna. The rest stayed on the boat as a ship towed it to the Cocos Islands. Asylum-seekers told the crew that three days earlier, five male passengers had donned life jackets and jumped overboard in an apparent attempt to swim for help.
A search-and-rescue operation began the next day but failed to find the men. However, a spokeswoman for Home Affairs Minister Brendan O'Connor said items that "may have been associated with the persons missing" - life jackets and tyre tubes - had been found.
The spokeswoman said yesterday the search had been called off.
"The search has now been discontinued on the basis of medical advice that chances of survival were no longer a reasonable possibility."
Mr O'Connor said the "tragic" incident underscored the folly of trying to travel so far to Australia in poorly maintained boats.
The asylum-seekers' boat was yesterday towed to the Cocos Islands, from where its passengers will be flown to Christmas Island.
Authorities were last night preparing to interview the 59 remaining passengers in an attempt to identity the missing men and explore what happened.
The location of the incident suggests they sailed directly from Sri Lanka. Thursday's rescue was not the first time the boat had received assistance. The same Russian ship gave those on board food, fuel and water after Customs made contact with the vessel on April 30.
A spokeswoman for Mr O'Connor said at that time the boat had been judged seaworthy, the Australian reported.