Survivors from a boat that sank off the south of Java said they had raised the alarm with Australian authorities, passing on their exact location at least 24 hours before their boat sank with the loss of an estimated 59 lives.
But immigration minister Scott Morrison contradicted the reports, saying initial reports suggested the boat had foundered in Indonesian waters, and Australian authorities were phoned on Friday morning, not Thursday morning as reported by survivors.
The surviving asylum seekers interviewed by Fairfax Media near the village of Cikole in southern Java told of a man who lost his wife and eight children in the tragedy. They said 13 children were among the 21 confirmed dead.
There were also suggestions from officials the stricken boat had been abandoned by its Indonesian crew, although some survivors’ reports conflicted with this account.
Late on Saturday the toll stood at 24 dead from a boat of 81 people, with 22 survivors.
The latest tragedy highlighted the focus taken by asylum seekers in relations between Australia and Indonesia, days before Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s first official visit to Jakarta on Monday.
Also on Friday, the Australian Customs Vessel Triton saved 34 asylum seekers off the coast of Rote Island and transferred them on Saturday morning to the Indonesian rescue agency Basarnas.
After maintaining a stony silence on the issue all day - seemingly in line with the government’s determination to hold weekly briefings on asylum seeker issues rather than give information as rapidly as possible - Mr Morrison issued a statement late on Saturday.
He said authorities received a call from the boat saying it was 25 nautical miles off the Indonesian coast. Authorities issued an all-ships bulletin, and a merchant ship in the area responded, but as unable to find the boat. A Border Protection Command aircraft was also unable to find the boat, he said.
“Any loss of life is tragic,” Mr Morrison said. “The Australian government expresses its deepest sympathy to those affected.”
Earlier, Mr Abbott refused to answer questions about the matter as he left a Grand Final breakfast in Melbourne,
One survivor, Abdullah, from Jordan, said: ‘‘We made a mistake. The children didn’t make a mistake, just rescue the children.’’
He added: ‘‘I called the Australian embassy. For 24 hours we were calling them. They told us just send us the position on GPS, where are you.
‘‘We did, and they told us: ‘OK, we know .. where you are.’ And they said: ‘We’ll come for you in two hours.’
‘‘And we wait two hours. We wait 24 hours, and we kept calling them: ‘We don’t have food, we don’t have water for three days, we have children, just rescue us.’ And nobody come. Sixty person dead now because of Australian government.’’
As dawn broke on a fine day over the beach near Cikole, the rescue effort began again, involving Basarnas, the Indonesian army and local people.
New details also emerged of treachery on the part of the boat’s Indonesian crew, whom officials said had abandoned ship after receiving their payment.
Mr Morrison said he believed the boat foundered inside Indonesian territory. Australian officials in Jakarta are seeking more information from their Indonesian counterparts about the circumstances of the tragedy.
Police said most of the dead were children under 15 years old who could not swim.
Most of the passengers came from from the northern Lebanese region of Akkar but there were eight from Eritrea (of whom five died), six from Iraq (one died) and one Iranian family from which only one child survived. Only 22 survived altogether.
The groups were brought together in Jakarta by people smuggling agents, to whom they had paid $10,000. Survivors said their smuggler’s name was Abu Saleh, and that he had been arrested.
Finance Minister Mathias Cormann told Sky News on Saturday the government did not want Mr Abbott’s trip to Jakarta to be defined only by the asylum seeker issue, which had raised diplomatic tensions between the two countries.
‘‘I’m confident that, while this is one issue that, of course, we have to continue to deal with constructively, all of the other very important parts of the relationship, in particular our trade relationship, will be appropriately high profile,’’ he said.
Man survives but fears wife and eight children drowned
A man has told of his search for his wife and eight children, lost in the latest asylum-seeker boat tragedy off the south of Java.
Hussein Khodr, identified as a Lebanese passenger on the boat, said through a translator: ''I just found my wife and one small child, two years old, and one six years old. And I didn't find anything else. There were eight children.''
Reports from the Naharnet news network in Lebanon, where many of the victims originated, said Mr Khodr had escaped from the sinking boat by swimming to an island, but he believes his eight children and pregnant wife were all killed.
Mr Khodr had contacted people in his home village of Qabeit ''and told them that the boat sank at dawn, when waves destabilised the vessel'', the head of Qabeit's municipality, Ahmed Darwish, said. Most of the Lebanese victims had come from the northern region of Akkar.
Abdullah, a Jordanian, said the passengers had fled their countries because of internal strife and threats to their lives, in the belief that Australia was a blessed place that would welcome them.
He said of Tripoli, the largest city in northern Lebanon, ''there's wars between people, not international wars. There's killing every day - 20 and 30 persons just die every day … anyone walking in the street, snipers just shoot him and nobody knows who kill him.''