JAKARTA, Indonesia -- An overloaded ship carrying almost 500 people, many fleeing sectarian violence in the Maluku islands, was missing and presumed sunken Thursday in remote eastern Indonesia.
The National Search and Rescue Agency said the wooden-hulled ship, Cahaya Bahari, made a distress call in stormy weather, which was now hampering search efforts.
Radio contact was lost after the captain said the vessel was taking on water in heavy seas, said a naval officer who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The state-run Antara news agency and several port officials reported the vessel had gone down.
''Of course, we are afraid many people have died,'' said Ering Musa, a local maritime official.
Rescue ships were reported to have reached the search area, some 40 miles west of Siau island and about 1,440 miles northeast of the capital, Jakarta.
Initial reports said the vessel had been overloaded with passengers. The ship was licensed to carry only about 250 people, an official said.
Of the 492 aboard, 290 were refugees from Duma, a Christian village where more than 100 people were killed June 19 in an attack by Muslim fighters. The ship also carried 186 regular passengers and 16 crew members along with cargo.
The ship left Tobelo on Halmahera, the main island in North Maluku province, on Wednesday afternoon. It had been heading to Manado, the capital of neighboring North Sulawesi province.
Radio contact was lost at about 1 p.m. Thursday.
Shipping disasters are frequent in Indonesia, where maritime standards are lax and poorly maintained ships are often overloaded with passengers and cargo.
Meanwhile Thursday, sniper fire and bomb blasts shook Ambon, the capital of Indonesia's Maluku islands, but fighting between Muslims and Christians abated as a state of emergency took hold.
Frightened residents in Ambon took shelter in abandoned homes and makeshift camps while hundreds of soldiers patrolled battle-scarred streets to enforce the three-day-old state of emergency.
''We're praying that it is all over,'' said Erik Mahale, a local journalist. ''Everything was quiet through the night except for a few explosions and rifle fire.''
At least 71 people have been killed in Ambon during the past nine days since the attack on Duma.
Despite the violence easing, international relief organizations said it was still too dangerous to deliver food, drinking water and medicines to tens of thousands of refugees and hospitals in Ambon.
Doctors Without Borders said it was too risky to move seven truckloads of desperately needed supplies from the city's port or distribute them.
''It's not possible to move around the city. There are barricades everywhere,'' the group's Philip Havet said by telephone from Ambon.
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