Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Search for survivors after asylum seeker boat capsizes near Christmas Island

At least two asylum-seekers are dead and grave fears are held for up to 60 others after an asylum boat carrying as many as 180 people sank north of Christmas Island as Customs and Border Protection crews were trying to assist it.

About 120 people were successfully pulled from the water in a major rescue operation by HMAS Albany and HMAS Warramunga after the vessel floundered at 7pm, AEST.

The Australian understands HMAS Albany raced to the aid of the boat, which had issued distress calls about 60-70 nautical miles north of Christmas Island.

In seas described as "rough", authorities were assisting the boat when it gradually began to sink.

It is understood Customs and Border Protection retrieved the bodies of at least two asylum-seekers and rescued about 120 people from the water.

The search and rescue operation is continuing.

The incident comes five days after nine asylum-seekers, including a one-year-old boy, died when their asylum boat sank off Christmas Island.

It was not clear what caused tonight's sinking. However, the large number of passengers suggest the boat may have been overloaded. In recent weeks, people-smugglers have been loading up their vessels with larger numbers of passengers in an apparent bid to bid to get as many customers to Australia ahead of a possible crackdown.

The latest boat emergency came as both sides of politics seized on comments by Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa about the Coalition's policy of turning back asylum-seeker boats.

The opposition's immigration spokesman, Scott Morrison, said a Coalition government would not need Indonesia's co-operation to turn back asylum-seeker boats.

"The Coalition is not seeking the agreement of Indonesia," Mr Morrison said. He added that Kevin Rudd had effectively handed Jakarta veto powers on Australia's border protection policy. Mr Morrison accused Foreign Minister Bob Carr of "standing over" his Indonesian counterpart, by using "union-style, Sussex Street-style diplomacy" to persuade him to declare on Monday night that Indonesia would not support the opposition's plan to turn back boats because that would be unilateral action.

Earlier in the day, Dr Natalegawa had indicated that Indonesia would be willing to discuss the Coalition policy.

Asked on the Ten Network late on Monday to clarify his position, Dr Natalegawa, who appeared alongside Senator Carr, responded: "Now, if I was asked whether we support or not support the push-back-the-boat policy, clearly in our perspective such a policy would constitute a unilateral type of measure that we do not support."

Mr Morrison said Dr Natalegawa was entitled to his opinion but it was not up to Indonesia to set Australia's foreign policy.

A spokesman for Senator Carr said: "Mr Morrison's suggestion is false (and) patronising and shows he has no respect for or understanding of Indonesia."

The government hopes to announce within weeks a package of border protection measures involving regional nations.

Earlier today, the Australian Navy responded to another high-seas emergency off Christmas Island as the captain of a vessel rescued after 12 hours in the ocean was delivered safely to Christmas Island.

Immigration officials on the Australian territory were preparing for a busy day of arrivals when the Australian Maritime Safety Authority's Rescue Co-ordination Centre issued a mayday call that a fishing vessel carrying 120 people was "holed and requiring immediate assistance" en route to Christmas Island. Detention facilities there have been operating above contingency capacity for weeks.

Tuesday 16 July 2013



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