A SENIOR officer in Indonesia’s search and rescue agency has said Australia’s rescue authority was in contact by phone with a stricken ship of asylum seekers but did not pass on the phone number.
”We are blind. We are blinded by the … lack of information,” Air First Marshal Sunarbowo Sandi told The Age yesterday. ”Honestly, in our position it seemed that Indonesia was cornered, providing unclear information in the first place [then] urging us to be reactive.”
Vice-Marshal Daryatmo, head of Indonesia’s search and rescue agency, Basarnas, told The Age his organisation was hopelessly under-equipped for ocean rescue and needed help from Australia if it were to save asylum seekers at sea.
He confirmed it had only one small fibreglass-hulled rescue boat, based in Jakarta, to deploy between Java and Christmas Island.
Marshal Sandi said the vessel could not venture out in waves higher than two or three metres: ”What we have now in search and rescue … in Jakarta is not a big capability … it means there is lot of restriction.”
Despite this, for 44 hours last week the Australian Maritime Safety Authority left Basarnas in charge of the search for the asylum seeker vessel making its way in heavy seas to Christmas Island.
That boat eventually sank at the halfway mark of the passage, claiming an estimated 90 lives, without the Indonesians ever having located it.
Indonesian sources have told The Age that Basarnas held crisis talks on Monday with a delegation from Australian Customs and Border Protection.
It is believed the Indonesians suggested Australia should supply a 60-metre ocean-going catamaran to help rescue sinking boats in future.
This would mirror the Howard government’s gift in 2002 to the Indonesian police of five boats to help fight people smugglers.
Asked about the idea of Australia supplying boats to Indonesia, Marshal Sandi said: ”We have to sit down, talk government-to-government about this, because it has happened many times and it should be taken seriously.”
Vice-Marshal Daryatmo and Marshal Sandi confirmed that no ships, whether from the search and rescue agency or the navy, are based on the southern coast of Java. This means they must all sail from Jakarta, several hours away on the north coast.
Marshal Sandi said the search and rescue team should have at least four vessels on the south of the island of Java.
The Indonesian Navy has confirmed it sent two ships, at the request of Basarnas, to look for the sinking vessel last week, but gave up when it could not be found.
A spokesman for the Indonesian Western fleet, Lieutenant-Colonel Agus Cahyono, insisted search and rescue is not ”our main job”.
”You have to understand these warships were on their mission to do sea patrol. They weren’t designed to conduct search and rescue operations,” he said.
A spokesperson for the Australian Customs and Border Protection would not confirm Monday’s meeting but said representatives from the Australian embassy ”regularly meet with their counterparts in Indonesia, including those in Basarnas”.