Malaysian authorities have expanded the search operation for missing passengers of the boat that sank off Sabah state in North Borneo.

The accident, which occurred on Saturday (28 January), has claimed the lives of three Chinese tourists and left six people – including a Malaysian crew member – missing, Malaysian officials said.

New reports said 22 people, including the boat's captain, have been rescued. Earlier reports had put the number of people found alive at 25.

The Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) said rescue operations were launched on Monday at 7am local time with the search area expanded to 1500sq nautical miles into waters in Brunei.

A ship from the Malaysian navy and a C-130 aircraft from the country's air force are currently looking for the missing passengers. Brunei is also providing help by sending a helicopter for the operation, Xinhua news agency reported.

The boat sank en route to Pulau Mengalum, a popular site for tourists, with 28 tourists along with two crew members and a captain.

The vessel reportedly hit rough seas off the coast of Borneo, which led to its sinking. An official of the MMEA said, "According to the skipper, the boat was 'broken' after being hit by waves and sank." The same rough seas then made the search operation more difficult.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has also asked the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Chinese Embassy in Malaysia to co-ordinate with authorities in Malaysia. The president has ordered the country's transport and tourism authorities to activate emergency measures to assist in the rescue.

Rescued Chinese tourists
Police coast guards attend to Chinese tourists rescued after their boat sank off the coast of Borneo, at a port in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia REUTERS/StringerMALAYSIA OUT