SYDNEY (Reuters) - The crew and captain of an Indonesian boat packed with illegal immigrants grabbed life vests and swam away as it sank during a heavy storm, leaving more than 200 passengers missing, Australian media reported on Monday.
Surviving asylum seekers said terrified passengers on the boat that was heading for Australia were left to drown as it broke apart in stormy seas about 90 km (55 miles) off the coast of Java, Indonesia.
"The captain and six crew took the life vests and started swimming away," Pakistani Saed Mohammad Zia, 18, told the Daily Telegraph.
"They were all from Indonesia. We lost sight of them in the big waves and we never saw them again. We don't know if they were rescued."
The number of survivors, missing and those feared dead is still not clear, authorities said of the latest of such disasters in recent years for immigrants travelling via Indonesia in search of a better life in Australia.
Many of the passengers on the wooden vessel, which sank on Saturday, are believed to be economic migrants from countries including Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Those that survived suffered severe dehydration and exhaustion after struggling to stay afloat in the rough seas, some clinging to wreckage for five hours.
"We were just praying to God that someone would help us. We thought it was the last of our life story," said Esmat Adine, 24, from Afghanistan.
"People were dying in front of us. The bodies were lying in front of us in the water, women and children mostly," he told the Daily Telegraph.
Indonesia is in its wet season, when its waters are prone to storms, making the journey even more hazardous
One survivor told authorities four buses with about 60 or more adult passengers each had turned up at the port where they embarked, Antara said, giving no further details.
"The reason for our journey is that I, along with the rest of the people on the boat, wanted to seek asylum in Australia," one Iraqi survivor, who gave his name as Fahmi, told Reuters in Arabic.
An Australian navy patrol boat and a surveillance aircraft will take part in the search and rescue operation later on Monday. While Australian federal police based in Jakarta will assist the Indonesian investigation.
"It's almost been two days since the boat capsized, the water is warm, but very rough. The chances of finding people is becoming more and more remote," Australian Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare told Australian radio.
Boat people are a major political issue in Australia, although according to U.N. figures the number of asylum seekers reaching Australia is tiny in comparison with other countries.
Indonesia enacted a law this year making people smuggling punishable by a minimum of five years in jail, while Australia has a tough border security policy of preventing asylum seekers reaching its shores by boat.
Most illegal migrants who set sail from Indonesia are intercepted by the Australian navy or customs and taken to Australia's Christmas Island for offshore processing.
The Australian government says its tough policy is a deterrent to people smugglers, but refugee and humanitarian groups say it has little impact on the lucrative trade.
(Reporting by Michael Perry; Editing by Ed Lane)