35 missing in two boat accidents off Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) - Malaysian authorities on Thursday were searching for 35 people missing at sea following two boat accidents at a time when many illegal migrant workers head home to Indonesia for the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

In the latest incident early Thursday, nine people were missing off western Malaysia after a boat believed to be bound for the Indonesian island of Sumatra sank near the district of Sepang, south of the capital Kuala Lumpur, The Star daily reported.

Eighteen people were rescued, it said, quoting Mr Mohamad Hambali Yaakup, an official with the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA).

The accident came to light as authorities expanded a search for survivors of another boat - also bound for Sumatra - that sank just up the coast with 97 Indonesians aboard early on Wednesday. Nine bodies have been found after that accident, while 26 remain missing, though officials believe some of them made it to land - the boat sank near the Malaysian shore - and fled the area to avoid being apprehended by authorities.

Authorities have not yet determined the cause of either accident, but the boat that sank on Wednesday was likely carrying three times more passengers than it could safely transport, officials said.

"The boat is too small to ferry 97 people. The boat must have been very cramped," said MMEA spokesman Mohamad Zuhri, adding that its capacity was likely around 30 passengers.

Large numbers of Indonesians - many of them illegal migrants - return home annually from Malaysia for Ramadan, which this year begins around the end of June and will culminate in late July with Eid al-Fitr, Islam's biggest festival. Both Malaysia and Indonesia are Muslim-majority.

On Thursday, divers were deployed, more vessels brought in and the search zone for the first sinking expanded along the coast in hope of finding more survivors, said Mr Mohamad Hambali. "We have deployed divers and a total of 25 marine craft and a helicopter to sweep the coastal area for possible survivors," he told AFP.

Mr Mohamad Hambali said the divers would try to determine what caused the boat to sink and to view any markings that would help identify its owner and operator.

The 62 survivors of the first mishap have been detained by authorities and were not available to speak with the media.

Relatively affluent Malaysia is a magnet for migrant workers from poorer neighbours such as Indonesia, Bangladesh and Myanmar, who seek low-paying plantation, construction, and factory work that is typically shunned by Malaysians. Around two million illegal immigrants - the vast majority of them Indonesian - are estimated to be working in the country.

Accidents, however, are frequent as thousands risk the sea journey to and from Malaysia in rickety boats, often adding to the danger by travelling at night to avoid detection.

Wednesday's incident occurred in the early-morning dark near Port Klang, the country's main sea port.

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