/ 29 December 2008

Hundreds of migrants feared drowned in Bay of Bengal

More than 300 people believed to be illegal migrants are feared to have drowned off the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal after jumping into the sea and trying to swim ashore.

The Indian coastguard said on Sunday it had rescued at least 99 people who had been drifting for days in the ocean.

Preliminary investigations suggest the men — aged 18 to 60 — had left Bangladesh bound for Malaysia, in six motorised boats about 45 days ago.

Coastguard commander SP Sharma said: “On Friday night, the men saw the lights of Hut Bay and over 300 jumped into the sea to swim ashore. We’ve rescued 99 in the last two days, and we’re investigating what happened.”

Sharma said the air and sea search by the coastguard and Indian navy would continue, but there was little hope of more survivors. Details of how so many men ended up drifting in the sea 1 200km off India’s eastern coast, close to Thailand, remained sketchy.

The Indian news agency IANS quoted a defence official in the Andamans who said that after intercepting the boat people, the Thai authorities had put them on a pontoon tied to a ship to deport them. But they had quietly released the cable and the pontoon started drifting.

Mohammad Ismail Arafat, one of the survivors, told the coastguard he and others had paid a Bangladeshi agent for promised jobs in Malaysia.

The Times of India website said that after being detained for four weeks, the boat people were transferred to a non-mechanised vessel, with some bags of rice and were set adrift off the Thai coast 12 days ago. The men had little food or water and only a plastic sheet as a makeshift sail, Arafat told Indian officials.

Seven died while the group drifted between Thailand and the Andamans and their bodies were dumped at sea.

The coastguard found the vessel with 88 men still on board about 64km off Hut Bay. – guardian.co.uk