Race on to find 25 stranded illegals
28 March 2001
By Megan Saunders

SEARCH and rescue teams were last night racing to find about 25 people -- thought to be asylum-seekers -- stranded at sea north of Christmas Island without food and water.

Two men, believed to be Indonesian, alerted Australian authorities to their plight after being picked up by fishermen from a makeshift raft. One local resident described the raft as 'three or four plastic barrels tied together'.

The men had left the stricken vessel about midday on Monday after the boat ran into mechanical problems with no supplies on board. They were not discovered until yesterday morning.

The vessel, carrying between 20 and 25 people, is believed to have been adrift for a week.

It is the third boatload of suspected illegal immigrants to arrive in Australian waters in four days.

A spokesman for Australian Search and Rescue said yesterday the search zone was concentrated about 40 nautical miles north of Christmas Island.

The two Indonesian men have been taken to Christmas Island hospital suffering dehydration and sunburn.

A spokesman for the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said a research vessel and a twin-engine plane were involved in the search. A Customs Coastwatch Dash 8 plane was also flying to the search zone overnight.

'We believe that it's still afloat,' the spokesman said. But Christmas Island Chamber of Commerce vice-president Phil Oakley said feared for those on board.

'The fact that two crewmen have been found in a dinghy saying they're from a boatload of illegal immigrants does make you think that perhaps there could be a nasty side to this,' he told ABC radio.

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