Escapees’ Bid For Freedom Dies At Sea

Escapees' bid for freedom dies at sea

The Australian
Stephen Fitzpatrick
January 16, 2009

A NINE-YEAR-OLD Afghani boy is feared among the dead after a group of would-be asylum-seekers was shipwrecked trying to cross from West Timor to Australia.

Police had found four bodies by late yesterday, but were still searching for five more members of the party of 18 that broke out of an immigration detention centre early on Wednesday.

Two Indonesian crew members from the 11m fishing boat were also missing after it sank off Rote Island, southwest of Timor, in heavy seas.

The captain and several other asylum-seekers were either rescued by fishermen or washed up on nearby land.

The group of 18, which included Burmese nationals, escaped from immigration detention in Kupang City, West Timor, by taking three guards hostage and cutting power and phone connections at the facility.

They tied the guards up with Indonesian flags kept in the detention centre, a police spokesman said.

They then escaped in a Mitsubishi van authorities believe was provided by a well-organised people-smuggling gang. The gang is believed to have rented the fishing boat on which the group tried to make the voyage, with a fee for the boat's hire of 30 million rupiah ($4148).

“It seems there was an illegal immigration mafia working in the background here, because of the way they operated — from the breakout to the attempted crossing with this boat, which gives the impression of something very organised,” Timor police spokesman Octo Riwu said. “We are examining this case closely, because the procedure appears to have been extremely professional.”

Major Riwu said because of the rescued asylum-seekers' weak conditions, they had not yet been questioned.

A spokesman said other detainees in the centre had been approached to join the breakout, but declined.