by: Debbie Guest
From: The Australian
September 15, 2012 12:00AM

THE deaths of 13 Sri Lankan asylum-seekers at sea on route to Australia in November 2009 were "wholly unnecessary" and avoidable, according to West Australian Coroner Alastair Hope.

Forty Sri Lankan men were on board the asylum boat, known as SIEV 69, when it sank 350 nautical miles northwest of Cocos Island on November 1.

A distress call was received about 15 hours before the boat sank, and a key issue for an upcoming inquest will be the response of the Australian Maritime and Safety Authority to the call.

A Taiwanese fishing boat, the Kuang Win, was at the scene before the boat submerged, but the crew refused to pick up the asylum-seekers, fearing they were pirates.

Two of the asylum-seekers swam over to the Kuang Win and pleaded with the captain to be rescued. At a directions hearing yesterday ahead of an inquest into the sinking, Marco Tedeschi, counsel assisting Mr Hope, said one of the asylum-seekers who spoke to the captain would give evidence.

"His evidence will establish that they made it clear they were not pirates, that they were refugees, and they pleaded with the captain to take them. From the point of view of the survivors, they made it clear they were in distress," Mr Tedeschi said.

After 6 1/2 hours at the scene, and when merchant vessel the LNG Pioneer was about half a nautical mile away, the Kuang Win left without rescuing any of the passengers.

By the time the Pioneer arrived, the SIEV 69 had sunk, it was dark and some of the passengers drowned while in the water overnight.

"It seems that there's no doubt that the 13 deaths were wholly unnecessary and there was no reason why they could not be saved," Mr Hope said yesterday.

The Kuang Win returned to the scene later and rescued some of the asylum-seekers, he said.

Mr Tedeschi said the boat was in Australia's search and rescue zone at the time and one of the issues to be examined at the inquest will be whether there was a delay in AMSA establishing the location of the boat and whether this had an impact on the rescue.

Mr Hope said AMSA was the agency responsible for monitoring the rescue efforts.

The Weekend Australian understands some of the survivors are still awaiting the outcome of their asylum claims and remain in detention.

The inquest is set to take place over two days next month.

X-URL:http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/refugee-tragedy-at-sea-was-needless/story-fn59niix-1226474534574

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