Taiwan ship with 49 crew members missing in South Atlantic Ocean since Feb 26

TAIPEI (AFP) - A Taiwanese ship carrying 49 crew has vanished in the remote South Atlantic Ocean without any sign of a mayday call, but shortly after its skipper reported it was taking on water, the authorities said on Sunday.

The Hsiang Fu Chun, a 700-tonne squid fishing vessel, lost contact with its owners "soon" after reporting that water was leaking on to the deck at around 3am on Feb 26, officials said.

The vessel was sailing about 1,700 nautical miles (3,148km) off the Falkland Islands when it vanished, according to recorded satellite data.

Its crew include a Taiwanese skipper and chief engineer, as well as 11 Chinese, 21 Indonesian, 13 Filipino and two Vietnamese sailors.

Taiwan has launched a search effort, and is appealing for assistance from Argentina and Britain as well as other ships in the area.

"We still don't know where the ship is and what happened to it," Mr Huang Hong-yen, spokesman for the Fisheries Agency, told AFP, adding that the government had launched a search-and-rescue effort "immediately" after the ship's owners said it had lost contact.

He said there was no evidence the boat had sunk. The ship was equipped with a system that automatically issues a mayday signal when placed under a certain water pressure, but no such signal was sent, he added.

Mr Huang gave no details on the weather in the area at the time, but said that conditions were often unsettled in there, with high waves. He also did not explain why it had taken the authorities so many days to make the ship's disappearance public.

Some Taiwanese media have speculated that the vessel could have lost power and be adrift, or could have been hijacked by crew.

But another official from the agency who asked not to be named said: "To be honest, the hope of finding the ship in that remote area is fading."

The South Atlantic Ocean is a traditional fishing ground for Taiwanese vessels, attracting up to 100 squid boats from the island each year.

The Taiwanese fishing fleet caught around 200,000 tonnes of squid last year, mostly for domestic consumption, according to the Fisheries Agency.