Search area expanded in hunt for 4 Chinese tourists in Sabah boat sinking, 3 detained

Survivors receive medical assistance at the Malaysia Marine Operation Force post in Kota Kinabalu.
Survivors receive medical assistance at the Malaysia Marine Operation Force post in Kota Kinabalu.PHOTO: EPA

KUALA LUMPUR (AFP, REUTERS, BERNAMA, THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Rescuers Monday expanded their search for four Chinese tourists and a Malaysian crewman after their boat sank in rough seas off Malaysia, as police detained three people over the incident.

The sinking of the catamaran on the first day of the Lunar New Year holiday, sparked a major air and sea search covering some 400 nautical square miles. 

Maritime officials said late on Monday 27 Chinese tourists were on the boat and not 28, as they had previously said.

The boat, which was also carrying three crew members, had been on its way from the Sabah state capital Kota Kinabalu to tourist island Pulau Mengalum on Saturday morning when the incident happened. 

Twenty exhausted Chinese tourists survived hours in the water thanks to their life jackets and by clinging desperately to objects from the boat, but three tourists died. Adrift for several hours before help arrived, the tourists were picked up by fishermen, Malaysian maritime officials said.

Military ships and aircraft were scouring an area of 2,400 square nautical miles of sea, the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) agency said. 

The search had been hampered by strong wind and choppy waters, officials added.

Provincial police chief Ramli Din said three people had been arrested for questioning, including the the 26-year-old skipper and a 38-year-old crewman. Both have been detained by police on suspicion of negligence, Sabah Police Commissioner Ramli Din told AFP Monday. “Three people have died. We need to investigate all angles,” he said without giving details. 

The third person held was the boat owner and company proprietor.

Chinese President Xi Jinping had offered assistance and neighbouring Brunei deployed a helicopter and naval assets to help.

The rescued passengers and crew arrived in Kota Kinabalu early on Monday and were taken to hospital, the maritime agency said. Anxious relatives arrived and were escorted to the hospital by Chinese embassy officials.

Thousands of Chinese visitors flock to Mengalum island during the long Lunar New Year holidays. China is one of Malaysia’s main sources of tourists.  

Ties between the two countries were strained in 2014 when Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 went missing on its way from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. Most of its passengers were from China. The search for the airliner ended this month with no clue of its whereabouts.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak called for a thorough investigation into the incident. “I take the Sabah boat capsize tragedy very seriously, and I want a thorough investigation to identify the cause of the incident,” Datuk Seri Najib posted in Bahasa Malaysia on his Facebook on Monday. “However, for now, complete focus must be given to the search and rescue of six other victims who are still missing,” he said.

PROBE INTO INCIDENT

Authorities were investigating whether the boat should have been used as a tourist vessel, the MMEA’s director-general, Ahmad Puzi Ab Kahar, told reporters. “According to the skipper, the boat was ‘broken’ after being hit by strong waves, and sank. All the tourists were tied together and were carried away by the currents,” he said late on Sunday.

 

The boat had left the Sabah capital via the Tanjung Aru Jetty for Pulau Mengalum, an island known for its pristine beaches and dive sites located about 56km north-west of Kota Kinabalu.

The boat owner reported it missing on Saturday evening.

State Tourism, Culture and Environment Assistant Minister Pang Yuk Ming said the survivors were stable. “In such a situation, you can imagine the amount of distress one goes through,” he said. "They are all in non-critical condition and stable.”

The minister also said authorities are checking whether the catamaran had sailed from a jetty in Kota Kinabalu that is not intended for tourist trips to nearby islands. He also said they will check to see whether the catamaran was registered in Sabah or elsewhere, amid questions over the number of passengers the boat is allowed to carry.

According to Pang, the Sabah government had ruled that catamarans could carry a maximum of 12 people, including the crew and skipper. "A catamaran has a capacity of more than 30 passengers. However, the Sabah government limits the number of passengers for tourism purposes," he told reporters at the MMEA Sabah and Labuan Headquarters on Sunday (Jan 29).

Catamarans registered outside Sabah can carry more than 30 passengers.

Meanwhile, China's consul-general in Sabah, Chen Peijie said that the country's leadership took a serious view of the incident. 

The diplomat said family members in China could contact China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs for more information.

He also expressed satisfaction with the search and rescue operation.