KUALA LUMPUR – Malaysia on Sunday (Jan 29) mounted a major air and sea search for a boat carrying 28 Chinese tourists, which sank off the coast of the eastern Malaysian state of Sabah.
Strong winds and choppy seas were hampering the search for the catamaran, which went missing in poor weather off Sabah on Saturday morning on the first day of the Lunar New Year, AFP reported.
The skipper and a crewman from the boat were found alive Sunday but the search for the Chinese passengers was ongoing, the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency said.
It had left Kota Kinabalu in Malaysia’s Sabah state at about 9am Saturday en route for Pulau Mengalum, an island known for its pristine beaches and dive sites.
China's Xinhua news agency, citing China’s consulate general’s office in the Sabah capital of Kota Kinabalu, said multiple survivors were reported drifting at sea waiting for rescue.
MMEA deputy director for Sabah and Labuan Rahim Ramli said the boat was reported missing at about 9.50pm after failing to arrive at the island, located some 60 kilometres west of Kota Kinabalu. A search and rescue operation was launched soon after.
Mr Ramli told The Star the MMEA was notified by the company which owned the catamaran that the two crewmen were found safe in the waters between Pulau Tiga and the Samarang offshore petroleum platform. He said they were found at about 2pm on Sunday.
The search is now ongoing for the 28 China tourists and another crew member of the boat.
An area of 400 nautical square miles is being searched with officers from the maritime agency, the police, the navy and the air force involved.
China’s foreign ministry said “around 20” of its nationals were aboard. Its state news agency Xinhua said an emergency team, led by an official from the national tourism administration, had been set up to handle the incident.
Malaysia navy chief Ahmad Kamarulzaman Ahmad Badaruddin tweeted that it was “so sad as it happened on CNY (Chinese New Year)” and said navy ships and a C130 aircraft were onsite for the search and rescue operation.
Sabah's Tourism Minister Masidi Manjun expressed hope for the rescue efforts. “I, like all the relatives of those on board, am hoping for progress in the search and rescue operation,” he said. “Our forces are trying their best.”
China’s foreign ministry said in a statement that its consulate general in Kota Kinabalu had contacted Malaysian authorities and urged the government to do all it could to rescue the tourists.
"Yesterday was the first day of the Chinese Lunar New Year and it should have been a happy day. Unfortunately, such a bad thing happened," China’s consul-general in Sabah, Chen Peijie, was quoted as saying by Malaysian state news agency Bernama.
The China National Tourism Administration said it has initiated emergency response procedures, Reuters reported.
The incident comes about a week after a boat tragedy in the southern Malaysian state of Johor.
Several bodies washed ashore at a beach near the east coast town of Mersing in Johor on Monday after a boat believed to be carrying some 40 Indonesian illegal immigrants capsized in rough seas.