Indonesia searches for bodies from migrant boat

Indonesian boats and helicopters scoured the ocean around Bali Thursday in the grim search for more bodies from a capsized migrant boat, as officials said 74 had been retrieved so far.

Only 47 survivors were rescued after the overloaded vessel, carrying about 250 mostly Iranian and Afghan asylum seekers to Australia, sank early Saturday, 40 nautical miles off eastern Java.

"So far, rescuers have found 74 bodies. We found 43 yesterday (Wednesday) and another 31 overnight," East Java provincial search and rescue agency chief Sutrisno told AFP.

"The bodies were in horrible condition. You couldn't tell men from women. Their limbs came off when rescuers pulled them out of water," he added.

An AFP reporter on the scene said that at least one of the corpses brought ashore Wednesday was of a young boy of around seven or eight years old.

"Four helicopters and 10 boats were deployed today. The weather is very good and the sea is calm. We hope we can find more bodies today," East Java provincial Disaster Management Agency chief Siswanto told AFP.

While most survivors have been unable to speak coherently due to exhaustion and shock, some have told harrowing tales of clinging to wreckage for three days in violent seas, before being rescued by a passing boat.

Survivors also said that crew members and migrants had fought over about two dozen life vests on the doomed boat, which had a capacity of 100, and that the crew had abandoned ship after it capsized in stormy weather.

Officials said that two Indonesians found Monday near eastern Java's Malang city -- one of whom identified himself as a fisherman -- were crew members.

Local reports and a military spokesman said that three soldiers were being questioned over allegations they helped get the asylum seekers on board the ill-fated vessel.

In another accident in Indonesia's extreme east on Wednesday, four people died but 100 were rescued when an overloaded boat filled with villagers going home for the Christmas holidays sank off the Maluku islands.

Boat accidents are commonplace in Indonesia, an archipelago of 17,000 islands that relies heavily on sea transport. Disasters involving desperate migrants trying to reach Australia are also common.

Many try to head for Australia's Christmas Island, which is closer to Indonesia than to Australia, even though nearly 50 would-be migrants are believed to have died in wild seas during a shipwreck there in December 2010.

Saturday's capsize is believed to be the largest loss of life yet from a sinking of one of the many boats packed with Asian and Middle Eastern migrants who undertake the perilous voyage.

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