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Rescue under way after boat sinks off Australia

International vessels continued to search Tuesday for possible survivors of a boat that sank two days ago in the Indian Ocean.
/ Source: The Associated Press

International vessels continued to search Tuesday for possible survivors of a boat that sank two days ago in the Indian Ocean.

Merchant ships that responded to distress calls from the stricken vessel had rescued 27 people by Monday night, including those who swam to a life raft dropped by an Australian military plane, officials said. One person taken aboard a rescue vessel died.

Australian Home Affairs Minister Brendan O'Connor said a Japanese fishing vessel would join the search later Tuesday. The merchant ship LNG Pioneer remained in the area and seven Australian aircraft were also searching the waters. A Taiwanese fishing trawler that had helped rescue survivors was leaving to refuel, he said.

The nationalities of the people on the sunken boat was not known and O'Connor refused to speculate on whether they were asylum seekers trying to reach Australia, though aspects of the emergency — such as an unseaworthy boat carrying so many people in waters sometimes used by human traffickers — signaled that may be the case.

"The entire focus of the commercial vessels and the Australian aircraft has been to recover all passengers that were in the water," O'Connor told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.

Race against time
The boat went down late Sunday about 400 miles (650 kilometers) from the Cocos Islands, sparsely populated atolls about 1,500 miles (2,400 kilometers) northwest of the Australian coast and about 800 miles (1,300 kilometers) south of Indonesia.

Stephen Langford, regional medical director for the Royal Flying Doctor Service that sent a plane to assist the search, said it was a race against time to find more survivors.

"It's a fairly urgent task because there's still people in the water, and the weather is not fantastic," he told reporters.

An air force cargo plane reached the area Monday afternoon after hours of flying, and spotted two survivors in the water, O'Connor said. It dropped a life raft to them and continued to scour the search zone. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said later that three other people who were clinging to timber were also seen paddling toward the raft.

A second military plane was on its way, along with the plane from the doctors' service, a medical charity specializing in medical emergencies in remote Outback areas.

Rhianne Robson of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, which was coordinating the search and rescue operation, said the stricken ship was in Australia's maritime search and rescue zone when it sent out distress calls. The authority sought help from vessels in the area because the emergency was so remote, Robson said.

A Taiwanese fishing trawler and the merchant ship LNG Pioneer arrived in the area late Sunday and deployed life rafts and began plucking people from the water.

Surge in boats carrying asylum seekers
Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, the chief of Australia's defense forces, said the stricken boat was intact when the rescue vessels first arrived.

"Somehow or other during the process of the interaction between the ship and the trawler and also the stricken vessel, there's been a capsize and people have ended up in the water," Houston told reporters.

There has been a surge of boats carrying asylum seekers toward Australia. Some 35 boats carrying about 1,770 asylum seekers have arrived in Australian waters this year, mostly from Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and Sri Lanka.

Many of them pay thousands of dollars to people smugglers who send them to sea in leaky boats from Indonesia and sail south. Most are caught by customs authorities and are detained in an immigration camp on remote Christmas Island while their refugee applications are assessed, a process that can take months or years.