KUALA LUMPUR - A boat carrying 97 people from Indonesia sank off the western coast of Malaysia and 61 of the passengers are still missing, the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency said on Wednesday.
The passengers included women and children and were suspected of trying to reach Malaysia illegally, a spokesman for the agency said. The agency had sent one boat to the area to search for survivors and was sending two more, the spokesman said.
Malaysia’s New Straits Times said the boat sank around midnight on Tuesday about two miles (3 km) from the coastal town of Banting on the Strait of Malacca. According to AFP, officials said 60 people were rescued or made it to land by themselves after the accident around midnight near Port Klang, Malaysia’s largest port, as authorities intensify the search with nine ships and a helicopter.
“Thirty-two people are still missing. We have found five bodies comprising four men and one woman. They died due to drowning,” said Mohamad Hambali Yaakup, head of the Port Klang office of the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency.
“Rough seas are making our rescue operation difficult. But we will continue the search until the remaining 32 people are found,” he said.
The boat sank not far from shore, raising hopes that many of the missing had made it to safety on their own, Mohamad Hambali added.
Officials believe 97 passengers were aboard the wooden boat, including some children.
Authorities said rescued passengers told them they were returning home to Indonesia across the Malacca Strait - the busy shipping lane between Malaysia and Indonesia’s Sumatra island - for the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.
Officials had initially said the passengers were believed to be seeking to enter Malaysia.
“From interviews with those rescued, they said they were returning to Aceh (in northern Sumatra). They did not have any travel documents,” said Mohamad Hambali. “As in previous years, many Indonesian migrants will be leaving Malaysia ahead of Ramadan.”
Around two million illegal immigrants - the vast majority of them from Indonesia - are estimated to be working in Malaysia.
Large numbers of them annually return home to Indonesia ahead of Ramadan, which begins around the end of June and will culminate in late July with Eid al-Fitr. Both countries are Muslim-majority.
“We believe the boat was overcrowded and the sea was rough during the incident,” Mohamad Hambali said.
Access to survivors was not immediately available as they have been taken into custody by police.
Relatively affluent Malaysia is a magnet for migrant workers from poorer neighbours such as Indonesia, Bangladesh and Myanmar.
Accidents, however, are frequent as thousands annually risk the sea journey in rickety boats to seek low-paying work - typically shunned by Malaysians - on plantations, construction sites and in factories.
Indonesians often add to the risk by choosing to cross the Malacca Strait in darkness to avoid detection.
Last August a boat carrying more than 40 Indonesians heading home for Eid-al-Fitr sank off southern Malaysia.
Malaysian authorities called off a search several days later, with seven confirmed dead and 33 still missing.