By Augustinus Beo Da Costa

JAKARTA (Reuters) – Several passengers on an Indonesian ferry jumped into the sea and swam ashore after authorities sought to block the vessel docking due to fears of suspected coronavirus cases, as tensions rise over the spread of the disease across the archipelago.

The ferry travelling from via Indonesian Borneo and the island of Sulawesi was blocked when trying to make port in Maumere in the eastern island of Flores, amid fears three crew members on board had contracted the novel coronavirus.

Passengers flung themselves into the sea in life vests and swam ashore as authorities debated whether the ship, the Lambelu, would be permitted to dock, an official said.

“We ask for the passengers to cooperate with health protocols before disembarking from the ship and refrain from any actions that could be harmful,” Wisnu Handoko, an official at the transport ministry, said in a statement.

Videos shared on social media showed medical workers in protective gear carrying out tests on board the Lambelu after it was allowed to dock, before passengers were moved into quarantine on land.The ferry was carrying 255 passengers, mostly migrant workers returning home from Malaysia, after the neighbouring country imposed a coronavirus lockdown.

In a sign of growing anxiety about the spread of the coronavirus, residents in Maumere gathered at the port to protest the ship’s arrival on Tuesday.

As of Wednesday, Indonesia had recorded 2,956 cases of the coronavirus and 240 deaths, with many of the cases in the capital Jakarta though a growing number in other provinces.

There are fears in less developed parts of the country, including Flores where there are no confirmed cases, that people travelling from other cities could spread the disease to areas where healthcare facilities are ill-equipped.

Tests conducted on passengers from the Lambelu on Tuesday evening were sent to a laboratory on Java island with passengers in quarantine expected to wait up to a week for the results.

Weeks before Eid, the end of the Islamic fasting month when millions of Indonesians traditionally travel from cities to their hometowns and villages, the coronavirus outbreak has exposed tensions between central and regional governments, with some regional leaders seeking to impose lockdowns.

President Joko Widodo has sought to limit transmission of the highly contagious COVID-19 respiratory disease through social-distancing but has resisted general lockdowns adopted in many countries.

(Writing by Kate Lamb; editing by Nick Macfie)