Australia’s Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said a missing boat carrying about 70 migrants had been found in Indonesian waters with everyone safe on board, contradicting reports it had sunk.
Smith said Indonesian officials had found the boat following a tip-off from Australian police that it sank late on Tuesday off Komodo island, a nature reserve for Komodo dragon reptiles.
“It hasn’t sunk. And so the advice we have and the basis upon which we’re proceeding is that the Indonesian maritime agencies have located the boat,” Smith told public broadcaster ABC late Wednesday.
“All on board - which I understand to be some 70 people - are, on our advice, safe. So obviously we’re relieved that there’s been in that respect a successful outcome.”
Smith confirmed that Australian police told the Indonesians that the boat, reportedly carrying 74 Afghans, had sunk. Indonesian officials had said late Wednesday that a search of the area had come up blank.
“The Australian Federal Police in Indonesia alerted them late last night. Indonesian authorities, the maritime agencies, set about the task of locating the boat,” Smith said.
“They’ve advised us that they’ve been successful in that task. My understanding and our advice is also that those on board are safe.”
Indonesia is a transit route for migrants from the Middle East and Asia seeking to travel to Australia in rickety boats with the help of people smugglers.
People-smuggling is a hot political issue in Australia, where Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is accused by the opposition of encouraging illegal immigrants by relaxing the hardline policy of his conservative predecessor, John Howard.
Rudd this week visited Malaysia to urge officials there to crack down on human-trafficking following a sharp rise in arrivals in Australia - 825 already this year, compared to just 179 for the whole of 2008.
Smith said the latest boat was being taken to an Indonesian port and officials there would decide what to do with the people on board.