Boats carrying scores of Rohingya refugees capsize off Indonesia

MEULABOH, Indonesia: A boat carrying more than 100 Rohingya refugees and a fishing vessel trying to help them capsized in waters off Indonesia on Wednesday, with six rescued and some carried away by currents, local fishermen said.

The mostly Muslim Rohingya are heavily persecuted in Myanmar, and thousands risk their lives each year on long and expensive sea journeys, often in flimsy boats, to try to reach Malaysia or Indonesia.

"We received a report from fishermen in West Aceh that a boat carrying Rohingya refugees capsized in the sea near Meulaboh. A fisherman saw the Rohingyas at 8:00 am (0100 GMT) with their boat sinking," Nanda Ferdiansyah from West Aceh traditional fishing community told AFP.

"As soon as the fisherman's boat approached them, they all got on the boat. As soon as they got onboard, the fisherman's boat also sank because of overcapacity."

The Rohingya boat had capsized off Kuala Bubon beach in West Aceh, the regency's fishing community secretary-general Pawang Amiruddin said in a statement.

"The report from local fishermen said a Rohingya boat capsized and they saved themselves by getting onto the hull of the overturned boat. Some other people were carried away by the strong currents," the statement said.

"So far six people have been rescued by the local fisherman, four women and two men."

The local search and rescue agency said the Rohingya boat was spotted capsized 16 nautical miles (30 kilometres) off the coast.

Amiruddin told AFP by phone that survivors estimated there were "around 150 people on the boat... but we don't know for sure" with only half a dozen confirmed to have made it to land.

The refugees said they were from Myanmar and had tried to reach Thailand but turned to Indonesia's western Aceh province after being rejected, Amiruddin said.

He did not say if those carried away were feared to have died.

The United Nations refugee agency said it was "deeply concerned" about the incident, saying "tens of Rohingya refugees" were in desperate need of rescue but could not confirm exact numbers.

"We hope that search and rescue could be performed and the refugees can be brought to land as soon as possible. This is an emergency," UNHCR said in a statement.

The search and rescue agency said a team departed provincial capital Banda Aceh by boat on Wednesday evening and would reach the area of the capsizings at 12:45 am Thursday (1745 GMT Wednesday).

"At 6:45 pm, a search and rescue team departed from Banda Aceh to the location using a boat to conduct an evacuation," it said in a statement.

Local police and the regional government did not respond to requests for comment.

The incident comes after months of Rohingya arrivals on Indonesian shores.

From mid-November to late January, 1,752 refugees – mostly women and children – landed in the Indonesian provinces of Aceh and North Sumatra, according to UNHCR.

The agency said it was the biggest influx into the Muslim-majority country since 2015.--AFP

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