Twenty-three people are missing in remote Borneo after a boat overloaded with holidaymakers heading home for a festival capsized yesterday in treacherous rapids on a jungle river.
The accident occurred on Malaysia's longest river, the Rajang, which flows from deep in the rugged interior of Borneo island in the state of Sarawak.
Bakar Anak Sebau, police chief of the remote town of Belaga near the site of the mishap, said the boat's capacity was just 74 passengers but 181 people had been rescued after the accident on Tuesday morning.
"Twenty-three people are still missing," Bakar said.
Most passengers were believed to be heading home for the coming weekend's Gawai festival, a major cultural and religious observance for indigenous Borneo tribes that triggers heavy travel in Sarawak.
Bakar said no deaths had been confirmed.
He said the boat, which set off in Belaga, was heading downstream and was believed to have struck a rock while navigating one of many sections of rapids on the 560-kilometre waterway.
The accident took place deep in the wild and sparsely populated interior of Sarawak, one of two Malaysian states located on Borneo. Sarawak is Malaysia's largest state by area but also one of its least developed.
Gawai is one of the most important festivals celebrated each year by Borneo's dozens of indigenous tribes and other ethnic groups, with thousands travelling to meet family and friends for the festival.
Boat operators often come under intense pressure from travellers demanding to be let on board so they can reach their destinations in time for the festival, Bakar said.
"The operators are sometimes threatened with assault if they refuse to ferry passengers," he said.
Rom Kulleh, an aide to a local Belaga politician, said he saw the overturned and mostly submerged boat in the river while flying over the area in a helicopter.
"The boat was stuck in the water. It was upside down," he said, adding that some of those rescued were plucked from the water by passengers aboard other boats plying the river.