CANBERRA // A boat carrying about 200 people capsized south of Indonesia yesterday in an apparent attempt to reach Australia to seek asylum. Indonesian and Australian navies launched efforts to rescue survivors. Scores were feared drowned.
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) reported that an Australian navy ship and a cargo ship had rescued 73 survivors.
The boat capsized about 200 kilometres north of the Australian territory of Christmas Island – and about the same distance south of Indonesia – carrying as many as 200 passengers, the Australian government reported.
It was not immediately clear where the passengers were from.
Christmas Island is closer to Indonesia than the Australian mainland. It is a popular target for a growing number of asylum seekers, many from Iran, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, who try to reach Australia on crowded fishing boats from Indonesia.
"There's about 40 on the hull and the rest are in the water," said the western Australia state police commissioner Karl O'Callaghan.
Mr O'Callaghan said bodies had been seen in the water. "We can't confirm that they've died, but it's likely."
Gagah Prakoso, a spokesman for Indonesia's search and rescue agency, said two warships had been dispatched to the scene. He said Indonesia had sent notice to all cargo ships passing near the area to help, but he was not sure if any had reached the scene.
Mr Prakoso said the boat was reportedly carrying 206 people, but added that he could not yet say their country of origin or from where they had departed.
Australian authorities said as many as 75 people may be dead after a boat carrying about 200 asylum seekers capsized near Christmas Island in Indonesian waters.
"We're quite concerned that a large number of people may have drowned there," West Australian Police Commissioner Karl O'Callaghan said in an interview broadcast on Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio today. There were reports of about 40 people clinging to the vessel's overturned hull with the rest in the water, he said.
Refugees seeking asylum often try to reach Australia by passing through Indonesia, which was coping with a separate crisis today after a plane crash in Jakarta. The so-called "boat people" issue has hurt Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard's Labor government, which failed to pass a law in October creating offshore refugee processing centers.
The vessel is about 200 kilometres north of Christmas Island in the Indonesian Search and Rescue Region, the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service said in an emailed statement. Indonesia's search and rescue agency, known as Basarnas, is leading a coordinated rescue attempt.
Those efforts will continue overnight, O'Callaghan said. There weren't enough life jackets for everyone on board and Australia would probably hold an inquiry into the incident, he said.
The boats often set out for Christmas Island, which lies about 2,600 kilometres northwest of Perth, the capital of the Western Australia state. Two other boats carrying asylum seekers arrived there today, Minister for Immigration Chris Bowen said in a statement earlier today.
On December 17, an overloaded vessel carrying asylum seekers to Australia sank in stormy weather off East Java province, killing at least 38 people. Less than a week later, at least 10 people died when a vessel sank near the Maluku islands east of Java.
A year before, footage of a wooden boat crammed with about 90 people was broadcast on Australian television networks showing the vessel crashing in heavy seas against the cliffs of Christmas Island, killing as many as 50 people.
Gillard was forced to abandon a plan to handle refugees outside the country when it was opposed by opposition lawmakers. Under an agreement with Malaysia, Australia was planning to send 800 asylum seekers to the Southeast Asian nation and accept 4,000 people from that country who have been verified as legitimate refugees by the United Nations. Australia's High Court declared her initial deal with Malaysia to process the migrants illegal on August 31.
Today's incident comes as an Indonesian air force plane carrying seven people crashed into houses in Jakarta during a training flight.
The twin-engine Fokker F-27 turboprop went down near Halim Perdanakusuma Airport today, said Azman Yunus, an air force spokesman. The cause of the crash isn't clear and victims are being rushed to a hospital, he said by phone.