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More than 200 missing after migrant ship sinks off Indonesia

JAKARTA, Indonesia » Rescuers battled high waves Sunday as they searched for 200 asylum seekers feared dead after their overcrowded ship sank off Indonesia’s main island of Java. So far only 33 people have been plucked alive from the choppy waters.

Two were children, aged 8 and 10, found clinging to the broken debris of the boat five hours after the accident Saturday.

"It’s really a miracle they made it," said Kelik Enggar Purwanto, a member of the search and rescue team, as horrifying accounts emerged of the disaster.

The boat — packed with 250 people fleeing economic and political hardship in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Turkey — was heading to Australia when it ran into a powerful storm 20 miles (32 kilometers) off Java’s southern coast.

It was hugely overloaded, carrying more than twice its capacity, said Lt. Alwi Mudzakir, a maritime police officer overseeing rescue operations.

As strong waves rocked the vessel, panicked passengers started shoving one another, causing it to sway even more violently, he said.

Finally it disappeared into the dark waters.

A 25-year-old local fisherman, Jambe, told The Associated Press that he and his three-member crew spotted several dark dots in the distance on Saturday afternoon and decided to investigate.

They were horrified at what they found: more than 100 hysterical and exhausted people clinging to anything that floated.

On spotting their tiny fishing boat — big enough only for 10 people — survivors started racing toward them.

"They were all fighting, scrambling to get into my boat," Jambe said, adding in the end he managed to get 25 on board, many of them injured and all begging for water to drink.

Those left behind were screaming and crying.

"I’m so sad … I feel so guilty, but there were just too many of them," said Jambe, who like many Indonesians uses only one name. "I was worried if we took any more we’d sink, too."

Indonesia, a sprawling nation of 240 million people, has more than 18,000 islands and thousands of miles (kilometers) of unpatrolled coastline, making it a key transit point for smuggling migrants.

Many risk a dangerous journey on rickety boats in hopes of getting to Australia, where they face years in crowded, prison-like detention facilities. Australia’s harsh immigration policy has loosened up in recent months, however.

Those on the ship that sank Saturday had passed through Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, days earlier without any legal immigration documents, according to police.

An unidentified group loaded them onto four buses and took them to a port, promising to get them to Australia’s tiny Christmas Island.

Local television showed a half-dozen survivors at a shelter in Trenggalek, the Javanese town closest to the scene of the sinking, some with dazed, empty expressions as they sat on the floor drinking and eating.

Several others were taken to a nearby hospital in critical condition.

One of the survivors, Esmat Adine, told the official news agency Antara that when the ship started to rock, people were so tightly packed, they had nowhere to go, exacerbating the problem.

"That made the boat even more unstable," said the 24-year-old Afghan migrant, adding that at least 50 of the asylum seekers were children.

At Prigi, the nearest port, several members of the national search and rescue team were getting ready to head out to sea, empty body bags stacked up on the deck, local television footage showed.

Mudzakir said so far 33 people have been rescued, many suffering from severe dehydration and exhaustion.

He was worried — as the hours passed — that no one else would be found alive.

Weather was bad Sunday and four fishing boats, two helicopters and a navy ship already involved in the operation were battling 4-meter- (13-foot-) high waves.

"They have scoured a 50-mile (80-kilometer) radius but haven’t found anything," Mudzakir said, adding that currents were very strong and the weather was worsening.

Last month, a ship carrying about 70 asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan capsized off the southern coast of Central Java province, and at least eight people died.

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