Kuala Lumpur: Malaysian authorities on Thursday were searching for 35 people missing at sea following two boat accidents at a time when many illegal migrant workers head home to Indonesia for the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.
In the latest reported incident, nine people were missing off western Malaysia after a boat believed to be bound for the Indonesian island of Sumatra sank, said Mohamad Hambali Yaakup, an official with the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA).
A passing vessel, MMEA boats and a helicopter rescued eighteen people Thursday, he said. Three of them were hospitalised, while the rest are in MMEA`s custody.
Another maritime official, Hamid Mohamad Amin, said interviews with survivors revealed the boat sank amid strong winds near the district of Sepang, south of the capital Kuala Lumpur, early Wednesday -- and not early Thursday as originally reported.
The accident came to light as authorities expanded a search for survivors of another boat -- also bound for Sumatra -- that sank just up the coast near Port Klang, the country`s main sea port, with 97 Indonesians aboard, also early on Wednesday.
Nine bodies have been found after that accident, while 26 remain missing, though officials believe some of them made it to land -- it sank near the Malaysian shore -- and fled the area to avoid being apprehended by authorities.Officials said they were still investigating the accidents, but both boats sank in rough seas and were overloaded -- with the first one carrying more than three times its capacity.
Masri, a survivor from the second accident who like many Indonesians only has one name, said the boat`s engine stopped suddenly about an hour and a half into the journey and water started seeping in.
"The passengers panicked because many couldn`t swim. The sudden movement onboard caused the boat to tip over," said the chicken seller, 36, who held on to an empty fuel plastic container for about 28 hours until he was rescued.
Large numbers of Indonesians -- many of them illegal migrants -- return home annually from Malaysia for Ramadan, which this year begins around the end of June and will culminate in late July with Eid al-Fitr, Islam`s biggest festival.
Both Malaysia and Indonesia are Muslim-majority.
Jumah, another survivor from the accident off Sepang, said he had wanted to return to Sumatra after working illegally on a construction site in the capital Kuala Lumpur for three months.
"I felt I was going to die. The sea was very rough. I prayed and held on to the boat," the 68-year-old told AFP after disembarking from a rescue vessel together with others, who looked tired, sunburned and hungry.
On Thursday, divers were deployed, more vessels brought in and the search zone for the first sinking expanded along the coast in hope of finding more survivors, said Mohamad Hambali.
Mohamad Hambali said the divers would try to determine what caused the boat to sink and to view any markings that would help identify its owner and operator.
The 62 survivors of the first mishap have been detained by authorities.
Relatively affluent Malaysia is a magnet for migrant workers from poorer neighbours such as Indonesia, Bangladesh and Myanmar, who seek low-paying plantation, construction, and factory work that is typically shunned by Malaysians.
Around two million illegal immigrants -- the vast majority of them Indonesian -- are estimated to be working in the country.
Accidents, however, are frequent as thousands risk the sea journey to and from Malaysia in rickety boats, often adding to the danger by travelling at night to avoid detection.