Missing Refugee Boat
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Fears are growing that a rickety vessel loaded with boatpeople may have sunk as it headed towards New Zealand.
The fishing boat, thought to be carrying 42 asylum-seekers, left west Java three weeks ago and looked to be heading along the northern coast of Australia. The wooden boat is so unseaworthy that one report said its propeller had fallen off.
Indonesian authorities tracking the suspect boat reportedly lost it from their radar screens three weeks ago.
The Australian yesterday quoted an Indonesian naval officer saying it was possible the wooden vessel had sunk. The newspaper said the boat was carrying 18 men, 16 women and eight children.
It quoted the Indonesian officer as saying the boat was heading for New Zealand, but said there were also reports that it could be heading for West Timor. Other theories being put forward last night were that it had turned back, or sought shelter in a secluded bay.
A spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister Phil Goff said there had been no word from the Indonesians and the Australians were not directly tracking the boat because it was yet to reach their territory.
"The minister can't comment because we just don't know," the spokesman said.
"It was always unlikely that it would get here."
Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said intelligence services could not yesterday confirm claims that the asylum boat had sunk.
New Zealand officials have been in contact with their Indonesian counterparts about stopping illegal immigrants before they reached international waters.
However, it was believed the chances of the vessel making the hazardous voyage to New Zealand were always slim.
The New Zealand Government this week passed a law setting out tough new fines and jail terms for people-smugglers. The law, which Prime Minister Helen Clark said was designed to protect New Zealand's borders, introduced a $500,000 fine and/or 20-year jail term for convicted people-smugglers.
The Transnational Organised Crime legislation also gives police wider search and seizure powers, allowing them to board boats once they enter New Zealand's "contiguous zone", 24 nautical miles off the coast.
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