Thu, Jan 19, 2006 - Page 5 News List

Missing asylum seeker boat found

SAFE AND SOUND Customs found about 40 people from Indonesia's West Papua had landed on Australia's north coast following fears for their whereabouts at sea


About 40 as asylum seekers feared lost after departing Indonesia's West Papua province in a boat have landed on Australia's northern coast, a government official said yesterday.

The 25m boat left the Indonesian port of Merauke early on Friday and headed across the Torres Strait for Australia's northern Cape York Peninsula, according to Louise Byrne of the Australian West Papua Association.

The Australian Customs Service sent a Coastwatch aircraft to search for the boat, which was spotted ashore in the remote Cape York area yesterday afternoon, customs spokesman Mike Carter said.

"They'd reached land," Carter said. "An Australian Customs vessel is on its way to meet the vessel."

Crater would not reveal where on the sparsely populated cape region the boat had landed or say when the customs vessel was expected to reach the scene.

About 40 adults, mostly student activists, were on board along with four children, Byrne told ABC radio.

"We've been spending a rather frantic weekend looking for them because it's not far across the Torres Strait so it should have taken them a maximum of 15 [to] 16 hours," she said.

Indonesia took over West Papua from Dutch colonial rule in 1963. Its sovereignty over the area was formalized in 1969 through a stage-managed vote by about 1,000 community leaders. Critics dismissed the poll as a sham.

A small, poorly armed separatist movement has battled Jakarta's rule ever since.

About 100,000 West Papuans, one-sixth of the population, have died in military operations on the half-island province about 3,700km east of Jakarta.

Byrne said the group was forced to leave because of increasing political tensions in West Papua.

"We hope these asylum seekers when they are found are given asylum," she said.

"They have too much knowledge of what's going on in West Papua inside government departments," she added.

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