Indonesian province prepares to tow migrant boat out to sea


LHOKNGA, Indonesia (AP) — Authorities in the Indonesian province of Aceh are preparing to tow a boat with more than 40 Tamil men, women and children out to sea Friday after rescuing it last weekend.

It would be the second time in the past week that officials have attempted to remove the vessel from Indonesian waters after it suffered engine trouble and was discovered stranded on Saturday.

The migrants have been at sea for about a month and were trying to reach the Australian territory of Christmas Island.

The province is refusing to let the migrants, which include nine children and a pregnant woman, land despite Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla asking them to provide shelter. On Thursday, six women tried to leave the boat as it sat in shallow waters but police fired warning shots.

“We did not allow them to land because Indonesia is not their destination and they are fit,” said Frans Delian, a spokesman for the Aceh government. “We advised them to not continue their journey to Australia but back to their country.”

Immigration officials said the people were from Sri Lanka. Amnesty International said in a statement that the group left from India in an Indian-flagged boat and may have fled Sri Lanka, where members of the Tamil minority have suffered persecution.

Delian said their situation is different from stateless Muslim Rohingya boat people who were helped by Indonesian authorities last year after fleeing persecution in Myanmar. Southeast Asian nations including predominantly Muslim Indonesia were reluctant to help until facing international pressure over the plight of Rohingya adrift at sea with minimal supplies of food or water.

Rights groups urged the Indonesia government to let the migrants disembark.

“Indonesia won praise when it helped Rohingya refugees in Aceh,” said Andreas Harsono, Indonesia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “It is a shame that the Indonesian and Aceh local government refuse to assist these Tamil boat people.”

The International Organization for Migration has had a team at the site since last weekend including a translator and medical personnel and is prepared to provide temporary accommodation. However they have been denied access to the migrants.

Aceh police chief Maj. Gen. Husein Hamidi said the Tamil migrants have been given food, water and fuel. They could be towed out to sea at high tide later Friday, he said.

The boat was beached and heavy machinery was used to try and refloat it while all the migrants were still on board.

The vessel was first towed back into international waters on Sunday after repairs were made to its engine. It returned on Monday and the migrants asked for additional fuel, according to Indonesian authorities.

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AP writers Niniek Karmini, Stephen Wright and Margie Mason in Jakarta contributed.

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