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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia —An overcrowded wooden boat carrying Indonesians home in a storm sank in choppy seas off Malaysia’s west coast early today, leaving 28 people missing and eight dead, Malaysian officials said. At least 61 people survived.
The boat capsized shortly after midnight about 2 nautical miles from shore on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur while trying to leave Malaysia illegally for Aceh province in Indonesia, maritime agency official Mohamad Hambali Yaakup said.
Tens of thousands of Indonesians work without legal permits in plantations and other industries in Malaysia, and they travel between the countries by crossing the narrow Strait of Malacca, often in poorly equipped boats.
The passengers in the boat that sank were believed to be heading home before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Hambali said survivors were rescued at sea and found on land after swimming to safety; they included 12 women and a child. Those dead were a woman and seven men, he added.
The survivors were being questioned by police and immigration authorities, and Indonesian embassy officials were also on the scene. A rescue department photo showed about two dozen survivors, who had little belongings with them, sitting outside a building.
Hambali said a ship and several boats with search lights will continue to search for further survivors throughout the night. A helicopter, which earlier scoured the sea, will stop for the night and resume searching Thursday, he said.
Rescuers were seen recovering a body from sea, laying the dead onto a boat desk and carrying a body on land in Pantai Kelanang, near the sinking.
Police Superintendent Azman Abdul Razak said 100 personnel were involved in the rescue effort.
Hambali said authorities are still investigating why the boat sank but rough seas and an overloaded boat could have been factors. It could also have hit an object as some survivors claimed the boat was leaking, he said. Police told local media the boat capsized during a storm.
He said chances of survival for more than 24 hours without a life vest were very slim.
The boat’s capacity was 50-60 people, but it was believed to be carrying 97. Hambali said some survivors may have swum to shore and gone into hiding.
Such incidents are common in Malaysia, which has up to 2 million Indonesian migrants. Many sneak into neighboring Malaysia for menial work such as plantation or construction workers and return home on boats believed to be old and unsafe.