KUALA LUMPUR • An overloaded wooden boat believed to be carrying dozens of Indonesian illegal immigrants sank off the coast of Malaysia yesterday, killing at least 14 people, 13 of them women, maritime officials said.
The boat had left Sabak Bernam in Selangor and was heading for Sumatra in Indonesia when the accident happened.
Rescuers were searching for dozens of Indonesians still missing hours after their small wooden vessel disappeared beneath the waves.
"Local fishermen have rescued 15 people and fished out 14 bodies from the sea - 13 women and one man," Mr Mohamad Aliyas Hamdan, local head of the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency, told AFP.
"We have deployed 12 ships and a plane along with 200 officers to carry out the search and rescue operation for the remaining victims."
The Indonesian search and rescue agency said it was on standby to provide any assistance to its Malaysian counterpart.
Around two million people, mostly from Indonesia, work in Malaysia illegally, regularly crossing the narrow strait between the two countries in barely seaworthy vessels.
The boat sank in choppy waters off Malaysia's western coast. "I believe the boat sank because of bad weather and it was overcrowded," Mr Mohamad Aliyas said.
Based on the size of the boat, it could have been carrying about 70 people, but local fishermen said there could have been up to 100 on board, he added. He said rescue officials are confident they will be able to find more survivors because the boat sank close to land.
The bodies have been taken to a public hospital in Teluk Intan in the neighbouring state of Perak.
"We are not sure if the migrants were attempting to land in Malaysia or trying to leave Malaysia illegally," Mr Mohamad Aliyas said, describing the sinking as the worst boat tragedy so far this year.
Malaysia, South-east Asia's third-largest economy, has been a magnet for Indonesians in search of jobs. But maritime accidents are frequent as thousands attempt the perilous sea crossing, despite the risks, to seek low-paying jobs - typically shunned by Malaysians - in plantations, factories and on construction sites.
Desperate migrants often add to the risk by choosing to cross the narrow Malacca Strait in darkness to avoid detection.
Last June, more than a dozen people drowned when an overloaded boat carrying 97 Indonesian migrants heading home for Ramadan sank in rough seas off western Malaysia.
The region has faced a huge migrant crisis in recent months, with more than 4,000 landing in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar and Bangladesh after Thailand launched a crackdown on people-smuggling gangs in May. Hundreds are believed to have drowned. But no such boats have been reported in recent weeks.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE