Warning shot fired in Indonesian migrant boat standoff

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LHOKNGA, Indonesia: Indonesian authorities faced pressure Friday to allow dozens of Sri Lankan migrants stranded on a boat for almost a week to disembark, as witnesses said a warning shot was fired in chaotic scenes near the vessel.

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The 44 migrants, who include many women and children, have been stuck on the Indian-flagged vessel resting in shallow waters off Aceh province since last Saturday after it broke down en route to Australia.

The western province has refused to allow the migrants, who are believed to be minority Tamils, to disembark and have said the boat will be towed out to international waters to continue on its journey after repairs are completed.

Their refusal came despite Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla ordering local authorities to allow them to disembark. Insurgents in Aceh fought against rule from Jakarta until 2005, and provincial authorities still disagree with the central government on occasion.

On Thursday five women attempted to disembark from the boat, which is now stranded by a beach in the town of Lhoknga, and a crowd of local villagers surged towards the vessel, an Agence France-Presse journalist at the scene said.

Police fired a warning shot into the air during the chaos, the journalist said. Officials went to talk to the women and they climbed back aboard the boat.

“There was quite a lot of distress, a lot of crying,” said Lilianne Fan, international director of Aceh NGO the Geutanyoe Foundation, whose team on the ground witnessed the incident.

The United Nations refugee agency on Friday said it was “deeply concerned” by the condition of those on the boat, while rights groups urged the authorities to allow them to disembark.

“These people have endured a long and difficult journey already. Now that they have reached land in Aceh, they should be allowed to disembark and meet UNHCR (UN refugee agency) officials,” Josef Benedict of Amnesty International said in a statement.

Aceh officials have defended their actions, saying the migrants did not have proper documentation.

Local immigration official Heri Sudiarto said authorities were fixing the engine and hoped to tow the boat out to international waters later in the day if weather conditions improved.

Hundreds of Myanmar Rohingya came ashore in Aceh last year during a regional boat people crisis and were warmly welcomed by residents of the staunchly Islamic province, who felt sympathy for their plight as a persecuted Muslim minority. AFP

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