Maritime agency's boat search 'delayed 29 hours'

August 27, 2012
Joel Magarey
Age

INDONESIA government documents show one of its agencies approached Australia's ocean safety authority about assisting a boat more than 29 hours before it was found to have capsized with the loss of 93 lives.

The revelation comes amid criticism levelled by maritime law experts at the Australian Maritime Safety Authority's response to the boat, which they say may have breached a key legal obligation by leaving it without aid for nearly two days.

New details about the incident are revealed in an incident chronology compiled by the Indonesian search and rescue agency Basarnas - obtained by The Age - which also shows apparent bungles by the Indonesian agency.

News that Indonesia sounded out Australia for help contrasts with the picture offered after the June incident by the federal government. It stressed that Indonesia had accepted responsibility for the boat.

The catastrophe, under investigation by the Western Australian coroner and a federal review panel, was a key event leading to the appointment of an expert panel that has sparked Australia's return to offshore processing of asylum seekers.

Between June 19 and 21, the boat made several calls for help to the authority, which only sent vessels to its aid 41 hours after the first call, by which time the boat had capsized.

The Indonesian chronology shows that eight hours after the authority passed responsibility for the boat to Basarnas, the less capable Indonesian agency asked it to help ''if the boat was already close to Christmas Island''.

Previously released authority faxes show its response was to ''monitor'' the incident, which it did- as Basarnas failed to carry out a rescue - for two nights and a day.

On the morning of June 21, the authority received as-yet unspecified ''additional information'' and, that afternoon, sent a Customs plane and vessels.

The Customs plane found the boat halfway between Christmas Island and Indonesia, ''with approximately 40 people sighted clinging to the hull and others in the water'', according to a Customs media statement.

The boat was about 200 kilometres from both Christmas Island and Java, about 190 kilometres north of Australia's search and rescue zone and about 10 kilometres north of the Christmas Island exclusive economic zone.

Of the 203 mainly Afghan asylum seekers authorities believe were on board, 93 drowned.

Two maritime law experts have said the authority's decision to leave the rescue to Basarnas when it was proving ineffective may have put Australia in breach of a central duty of international maritime law.

Depending on how much authorities knew, it was ''certainly arguable'' Australia had fallen short of the maritime law obligation to render assistance to distressed vessels, Sydney University associate professor of law Tim Stephens said.

Monash University maritime law specialist Eric Wilson said if Indonesia was unable or unwilling to respond to a maritime crisis when Australia was, then under customary international law ''Australia becomes the rescuer by default''.

An authority spokeswoman said Indonesia was responsible for its own search arrangements and the authority worked closely with Basarnas.

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