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The BBC's Jonathan Head in Jakarta
"The last contact with the vessel was late on Thursday"
 real 28k

Sunday, 2 July, 2000, 05:47 GMT 06:47 UK
Mystery deepens in ferry search
Ferry at Manado harbour
A packed ferry similar to the missing vessel sets sail
The Indonesian authorities have resumed the search for a missing ferry amid growing mystery over its fate.

The ferry was carrying an estimated 500 passengers - most of whom were fleeing from religious violence in the Moluccan Islands - when it disappeared during a storm on Thursday.

Mpluccas map

Rescuers who have launched a big air and sea search say there is no evidence to support claims that the ferry has been seen elsewhere, or has been captured by Muslim fighters.

But neither has any wreckage been seen, which they would have expected if the ship had gone down.

Four navy ships, one private vessel and three aeroplanes are involved in the hunt.

"We are searching the sea and the shores of the islands there for any sign of the ship and its passengers," said a rescue official.

No wreckage

But the search teams say they remain mystified by the ferry's complete disappearance.

They believe that even if it had sunk, bodies, possessions or wreckage would have been washed ashore or would have been spotted floating.

The hopes of distraught relatives were briefly raised on Saturday after reports that the ferry and its passengers had been found on the island of Siau, 130km (80 miles) north of its original destination, the town of Manado on North Salawesi.

Relatives wait for news at Manado
Distressed relatives have been waiting for news

But officials said later that the reports appeared to have been a false alarm.

"We have circled the area three times and we found three ships on its shore but the missing ferry was not among them," said First Admiral Djoko Sumarjono of the Indonesian navy.

The vessel set sail on its from the northern Moluccan island of Halmahera, on Wednesday, and should have reached Manado the following day.

It was built to hold 200 passengers, but witnesses say it left port with more than double that number on board.

Radio contact

The ferry is believed to have started leaking near the end of its journey, about 65km (40 miles) south-east of Siau island.

Radio contact with the wooden-hulled vessel was lost after its captain radioed that it was taking on water during a violent storm.

Officials believe the ferry, the Cahaya Bahiri, could have been swept out into the Pacific or on to one of numerous small islands.

Christian refugees
Thousands of Christians have fled the violence

Nearly 300 refugees are thought to have boarded the ship, along with its 198 passengers and crew.

Most of the refugees were believed to be from the Halmahera village of Duma, where at least 114 people were killed when Muslim fighters attacked the village.

On Manado's waterfront, hundreds of anxious relatives waited anxiously for news.

"My husband is missing. I can only pray that God will protect him and the rest," said Since Senaen.

"We left our home because of the violence and the fighting. We came here to safety a few days ago. He was to join us."

Other relatives sat in a crowded waiting room, some sobbing.

A state of emergency has been declared on the Moluccan islands, where more than 2,500 Christians and Muslims have been killed in the past 18 months.

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See also:

29 Jun 00 | Asia-Pacific
Moluccan islanders' desperate flight
27 Jun 00 | Asia-Pacific
Indonesia loses faith in Moluccas troops
25 Jun 00 | Asia-Pacific
Civil war looms in Moluccas
20 Jun 00 | Asia-Pacific
Massacre in the Moluccas
20 Jun 00 | Asia-Pacific
Who are the Lashkar Jihad?
Ambon's troubled history
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