Fri, 30 Jun 2000

270 refugee feared dead as ship sinks

AMBON, Maluku (JP): A boat carrying at least 270 refugees fleeing sectarian violence in Tobelo, Halmahera island in North Maluku, is believed to have sunk somewhere in the Sahu waters off the northern tip of Sulawesi.

There was no immediate information on survivors or confirmation of the exact condition of the overloaded ferry.

Chief of Maluku's communication ministry office Bob Halattu said the Cahaya Bahari, which embarked on Wednesday, reportedly capsized about 40 kilometers east of Siau island in North Sulawesi at about 1 p.m. Eastern Time Zone on Thursday.

"Four rescue vessels have been deployed from the port of Manado in North Sulawesi to locate the ship. We don't know the state of the ship, whether it has completely sunk or it's still on the water," Bob said.

It is the second ferry carrying Maluku refugees to have sunk since the Masnait capsized in a storm in Ambon waters in May, resulting in the death of more than 40 passengers.

Along with passengers, who were mostly women and children, the Cahaya Bahari was carrying a cargo of copra.

According to the list of passengers, only 186 people were on board. Bob said the ship was allowed to carry up to 270 passengers.

Officials and witnesses, however, said the ship left Tobelo port packed with at least 400 people, mostly refugees from Duma and Makete who fled their villages after the areas were ravaged by rioters last week.

The violence, which broke weeks of calm, claimed 108 lives, according to military authorities.

There are conflicting reports about the ship's status, Bob said.

"I heard that there was a leakage and ship crews decided to dump the cargo to keep the boat balanced. But another report said the ferry capsized," Bob said.

The North Sulawesi transportation office and the Tobelo Port Authority could not be immediately reached for confirmation. (48/49/edt)