Tags: Australia | immigration | refugees | accident

Major Search after Boat Sinks off Australia, 13 Dead

Sunday, 09 Jun 2013 08:59 AM

Planes, merchant and navy ships were scouring seas off Australia Sunday in a major search operation after a people-smuggling boat carrying 55 men, women and children sank, with 13 confirmed dead.

The boat was last seen 28 nautical miles northwest of Australia's remote Christmas Island on Wednesday but then vanished.

Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare said a full-scale search involving 15 ships and 10 aircraft was under way.

The navy vessel HMAS Warramunga had been sent to intercept the boat on Thursday but it had disappeared. Aerial searches turned up no sign until Friday, when Clare said a "submerged hull" was seen from the air.

The rescue effort is concentrating on an area of debris including wood and life jackets 74 miles west of the island, which is closer to Indonesia than Australia's mainland.

When the drifting boat was first spotted by a border protection aircraft on Wednesday, Clare said officials "identified approximately 55 people on the deck of the vessel, mostly adult men but also a small number of women and children".

There was no immediate information about the passengers' nationality, but Myanmar, Iraq, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka are the most common source countries for asylum-seekers arriving in Australia via people-smuggling boats from Indonesia.

"Thirteen bodies have been sighted and the search for survivors continues," Clare told reporters.

"This is another terrible tragedy, another terrible reminder how dangerous these journeys are."

The Warramunga arrived on site to find wood and life jackets floating, with the first body sighted late on Friday and another 12 found by Sunday morning.

Rear Admiral David Johnston, head of border protection, said the "complex and time-consuming" task of recovering bodies would not begin until the search for survivors was exhausted.

"We believe from (medical) advice that we are still in the window where survivability is possible," Johnston said.

Johnston said sea conditions had been favourable and when the vessel was initially sighted on Wednesday "nothing about (the passengers') demeanour suggested that this boat was in distress".

He added that Indonesia's maritime authority Basarnas was "certainly aware of the incident" but was caught up with a number of other vessels closer to the Indonesian coastline.

HMAS Warramunga had also been diverted to assist another suspected people-smuggling boat off Christmas Island, which issued a distress call to Australian police overnight, Clare said.

Australia is struggling with a record influx of asylum-seekers arriving by boat, with numbers expected to top 25,000 in the 12 months to June 30 despite punitive "no advantage" policies banishing refugees to the remote Pacific.

Hundreds of refugees have died in asylum-seeker boat accidents on the perilous sea journey in recent years, the latest in March when a boat carrying 95 capsized, killing two people including a small child.

Another vessel disappeared without a trace in the Sunda Strait in April with 72 on board and there were fears of a further sinking in May when 28 life jackets washed up on the Cocos Islands in the Indian Ocean.

Even as the search unfolded Sunday the government reported the arrival of three more boats carrying 275 people.

It is a sensitive political issue expected to dominate the campaign ahead of September's national elections, with the conservative opposition promising tough new measures including towing people-smuggling boats out of Australian waters.

Foreign Minister Bob Carr said Indonesia would never agree to the opposition's tow-back plan, describing it as a "fantasy".


© AFP 2018

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Sunday, 09 Jun 2013 08:59 AM
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