updated 11/20/2008 8:23:16 AM ET 2008-11-20T13:23:16

The New Zealand air force searched for 29 fishermen Thursday after the charred remains of their boat was found abandoned near the South Pacific island nation of Kiribati.

An initial search turned up "no sign of the missing life rafts or crew," Rescue Coordination Center spokesman Ross Henderson said.

The last radio transmission from the Taiwan-registered vessel — a personal call on a satellite phone from the captain to his wife in Taiwan — was received by authorities in Taipei on Oct. 28, New Zealand Air Commodore Gavin Howse said.

"There was no indication that anything was wrong at that point," Henderson told The Associated Press.

Howse said three life rafts and a rescue boat were missing from the Ta Ching 21 — a positive sign the crew was able to abandon ship safely.

Deserted vessel
"Despite the time that has elapsed since the vessel's last transmission ... air force personnel ... can successfully locate missing vessels in the most adverse conditions," he said.

A Korean fishing crew found the deserted vessel — with a Taiwanese, Chinese, Filipino and Indonesian crew — drifting near Kiribati's Phoenix Islands on Nov. 9, Henderson said.

A New Zealand air force P-3K2 Orion aircraft began searching some 21,000 square miles of ocean Thursday, Howse said.

A U.S. air force C-130 Hercules airplane searched the area on Nov. 12 without success, said Howse.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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