Indonesia searches for missing Australia-bound boatpeople

Rescuers searched the seas off Indonesia's Java island Wednesday for possibly dozens of asylum-seekers missing after their Australia-bound boat sank, leaving at least seven confirmed dead and 156 survivors.

Five children including an 18-month-old baby were among the dead, local police spokesman Achmad Suprijatna said, adding that a pregnant woman and a man in his 30s also died.

The boat left Indonesia just days after Canberra announced a tough new policy -- that asylum-seekers who arrive by boat will no longer be resettled in Australia even if they are granted refugee status.

Instead, they could be resettled in poverty-stricken Papua New Guinea. Before the new policy announced Friday, new arrivals were already being taken to PNG or Nauru for processing of their asylum claims.

An AFP reporter who spoke to survivors said a group of 38, including women and children, had swum for their lives in darkness for two to three hours in high seas to reach the shore Tuesday night.

Others were plucked from the sea by fishermen and rescuers.

West Java province police spokesman Martinus Sitompul said he believed 204 people were aboard the boat that began sinking Tuesday evening, while a survivor said some 250 had boarded the vessel.

Chief of the rescue operation Rochmali, who goes by one name, said 157 people had been rescued and were given food and water, but one child later died.

"They will later be questioned by immigration officials," he told AFP.

"We have to do proper checks, but they say they're from Iraq, Iran and Sri Lanka," he said.

More boats carrying survivors were seen Wednesday afternoon arriving at the beach in the small fishing village of Cidaun, but it was not immediately clear how many more had been rescued.

The boatpeople had set off from southwestern Java before the boat sank, Rochmali said, adding fishermen had reported the incident and tried to save the asylum-seekers.

Indonesia's rescue agency was alerted to the incident by Australian authorities on Tuesday evening, Rochmali said.

Their boat was headed for Australia's Christmas Island when it began taking on water, 42-year-old Sri Lankan survivor Obijet Roy told AFP.

Speaking in broken English, he described how terrified passengers jumped into the sea.

"Water from bottom of the ship is going up and then the passenger panic. Then they down to the sea," said Roy, who said he was with three friends.

Some asylum-seekers were wearing life vests, while others were clinging to pieces of wood when the boat went down, he said.

According to Roy, 250 asylum-seekers, mostly Sri Lankans, had travelled to Cianjur from a shelter in Bogor city on six buses to take the treacherous boat journey.

Villager Harun, 49, said he had seen the distressed asylum-seekers coming ashore in Cidaun.

"It was a shocking sight to see clusters of migrants at the beach. More and more came swimming to the shore," he told AFP.

Australia's Daily Telegraph newspaper quoted a man named Soheil as saying he was the only survivor of a group of 61 Iranians he was travelling with.

"We have problem with motor after two hour. For three hours, we try to come back (to shore).

"The sea very hard, the sea no good. The ship break," he said.

Soheil said the captain -- whom he said was a Sri Lankan man using a Malaysian crew -- abandoned them.

"The captain go to small boat," he told the Telegraph."He no help me, he no help children, he no help baby."

Asked about the tragedy, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd Wednesday defended his policy, aimed at stemming the number of asylum-seekers arriving in the country by boat. A record 15,000 landed in 2012 and more than 15,000 have arrived so far this year.

He told reporters the policy was "about sending a very clear message to people-smugglers that if you try to come to Australia by boat you'll not be settled in Australia".

Hundreds have drowned making the journey -- as recently as last week a boat sank, killing four people.

In a bid to smash the lucrative people-smuggling networks, Australia on Sunday also announced it would pay rewards of up to Aus$200,000 (US$180,000) for information leading to their conviction.