Page last updated at 04:33 GMT, Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Hopes dim for 29 Asian fishermen

Fishing boats at sea.
Fishing boats are vulnerable in the vast Pacific Ocean.

A fishing boat found empty and gutted by fire in the South Pacific is to be towed back to its home port in Taiwan.

Hopes of finding its 29 Asian crew members alive are fading, an official said on Tuesday.

The scorched shell of the Tai Ching 21 was found near Kiribati on 9 November with no sign of the crew members.

The crew are from Taiwan, China, Indonesia and the Philippines, but news reports were unclear if the boat was Korean or Taiwanese.

Fiji Navy Warrant Officer Anare Rasunusunu said the boat was being towed back to Taiwan, and "from there they will make an assessment and investigation".

There was virtually no chance of finding the men alive, he said.

The search, called off on the weekend, was first made by a US Air Force C-130 Hercules, and followed up by a New Zealand Air Force Orion aircraft.

It spent more than 30 hours searching 21,000 square miles (54,000 square kilometres) of sea in the Pacific Ocean north of Fiji, to no avail.

Mr Rasunusunu said the Tai Ching 21 had not sent a mayday call and it was not known what food, water or survival gear was in its three life rafts or one lifeboat, which had also not been found.

The last radio transmission from the vessel - a personal call on a satellite phone from the captain to his wife in Taiwan - took place on 28 October.

A Korean fishing crew found the deserted vessel drifting near Kiribati's Phoenix Islands 12 days later.

The ship was not smoking, indicating the fire had gone out several days earlier, said Mr Rasunusunu.

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