“We have had confirmation that six survivors have been rescued by a merchant vessel,” an Australian Maritime Safety Authority spokeswoman told AFP, adding that it was not clear if more bodies were in the water.
“There are no other confirmed survivors so far. The person who called in the distress call said there were 150 people on board and it had engine trouble.”
The recovery of the survivors by the APL Bahrain came after Indonesian rescuers abandoned their search.
Indonesia’s National Search and Rescue Agency (Basarnas) received an alert from Amsa early Wednesday that a boat was in distress between Java and Sumatra, 220 nautical miles from the Australian territory of Christmas Island.
Basarnas sent two police rescue boats and two helicopters but found nothing and returned to base, only for Amsa to task the Bahrain, which responded to an earlier broadcast to shipping, to attend a broader search area.
The captain of the Bahrain said screams and whistles alerted his crew as it scoured the Sunda Strait during darkness.
“We were doing scheduled searching. At the last moment when I was thinking to abort, I heard some noises, and we spotted them in the water,” Captain Manuel Nistorescu told the Sydney Morning Herald’s website.
“I [sent] a crew to get them and it was not easy… It was dark.”
He said the rescued men appeared to be in good condition, adding that they claimed the pump on their boat failed and the vessel began taking on water.
“They had an engine break and the water was coming, and the pump for pumping out the water was not working and the boat sinks. This is what I understand from them,” he said.
Amsa said a second merchant vessel, the bulk carrier Gwendolin, was moving to the area where the survivors were found Thursday to assist.
Two Indonesian search vessels were also heading to the scene, while Australian naval vessel HMAS Maitland was expected to arrive later in the day and two Australian aircraft would also join the operation.
Australia is facing a steady influx of asylum-seekers arriving by boat, many of whom use Indonesia as a transit hub, boarding leaky wooden vessels after fleeing their home countries.
Canberra this month said 300 boat people had died en route to the country this year, with vessels being intercepted by the Australian navy almost on a daily basis.
Two weeks ago, Canberra announced its intention to transfer asylum-seekers to Nauru and Papua New Guinea in the Pacific as part of a tough new policy to deter them from making the dangerous sea voyage.
But they keep coming, with more than 1,000 boat people arriving since the policy was adopted.
The new policy represents a return to the harsh era of the previous conservative government that sent asylum-seekers to Nauru and PNG but which the center-left Labor rolled back soon after taking office in late 2007.