LHOKNGA (Indonesia) • The Indonesian authorities faced pressure yesterday to let dozens of Sri Lankan migrants stranded on a boat for almost a week disembark, as witnesses said a warning shot was fired in chaotic scenes near the vessel.
The 44 migrants, who include many women and children, have been stuck on the Indian-flagged vessel resting in shallow waters off Aceh province since last Saturday after it broke down en route to Australia.
The western province has refused to allow the migrants, who are believed to be minority Tamils, to disembark and have said the boat will be towed out to international waters to continue on its journey after repairs are completed.
Its refusal came despite Indonesian Vice-President Jusuf Kalla ordering the local authorities to allow the migrants to disembark.
Insurgents in Aceh fought against rule from Jakarta until 2005, and the provincial authorities still disagree with the central government on occasion.
On Thursday, five women attempted to disembark from the boat, which is now stranded by a beach in the town of Lhoknga, and a crowd of local villagers surged towards the vessel.
Police fired a warning shot into the air during the chaos. Officials went to talk to the women and they climbed back onto the boat.
"There was quite a lot of distress, a lot of crying," said Ms Lilianne Fan, international director of Aceh non-governmental organisation the Geutanyoe Foundation, whose team on the ground witnessed the incident.
The United Nations refugee agency said it was "deeply concerned" by the condition of those on the boat, while rights groups urged the authorities to allow them to disembark.
"These people have endured a long and difficult journey already. Now that they have reached land in Aceh, they should be allowed to disembark and meet UNHCR (UN refugee agency) officials," Mr Josef Benedict of Amnesty International said in a statement.
Aceh officials have defended their actions, saying the migrants did not have proper documentation.