Indonesian authorities are preparing to tow a stranded boat carrying dozens of Sri Lankan migrants out to international waters. The vessel was on its way to Australia when it broke down off Aceh last week.
The western Indonesian province has refused to allow the group of more than 40 migrants to disembark. Instead, Aceh's police chief Husein Hamidi said the boat had been stocked with food, water and fuel, and would be taken out to sea at high tide on Friday.
The Indian-flagged vessel was found stranded in shallow waters last Saturday. The migrants, who are believed to be from Sri Lanka's Tamil ethnic minority, had been at sea for around a month and were reportedly trying to reach the Australian territory of Christmas Island.
Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla ordered local authorities to let the migrants land, but the province refused to comply. A group of women who tried to leave the boat as it beached near the town of Lhoknga on Thursday were met with warning shots fired by police and a crowd of angry locals.
"We did not allow them to land because Indonesia is not their destination and they are fit," Aceh government spokesman Frans Delian said. "We advised them to not continue their journey to Australia but (go) back to their country."
The 40 migrants were reportedly on their way to Australia when their boat broke down in Indonesian waters
Human rights concerns
Rights groups have appealed to local officials to allow the migrants, which include nine children and a pregnant woman, to come ashore. The International Organization for Migration has a team at the site, including a translator and medical personnel, but they have been denied access to the boat.
Following international pressure, Indonesian authorities last year agreed to help hundreds of Rohingya Muslims who had landed in Aceh, a staunchly Islamic province, after fleeing Myanmar by boat. However, Aceh government spokesman Delian said the Sri Lankan migrants' situation was different to that of the stateless Rohingya.
"Indonesia won praise when it helped Rohingya refugees in Aceh," Indonesia Human Rights Watch researcher Andreas Harsono said. "It is a shame that the Indonesian and Aceh local government refuse to assist these Tamil boat people."
nm/cw (AFP, AP)