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Up to 100 Afghans who hoped for a new life in Australia feared drowned

People rescued after their boat capsized north of Australia arrive at Christmas Island Friday.
People rescued after their boat capsized north of Australia arrive at Christmas Island Friday.Scott Fisher / Getty Images

Officials in Australia said 109 people had been rescued after a boat carrying refugees apparently fleeing life in Afghanistan capsized more than 120 miles north of Christmas Island, but warned it was looking "increasingly grim" for up to 100 other people still in the water.

Merchant and navy ships and five aircraft were involved in the search for survivors a day after a crowded boat turned over far from land in the Indian Ocean. A 13-year-old boy was among those rescued.

However planes flying over the area spotted a number of bodies in the water.

Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare told Sky News Australia that people "should brace for more bad news" on the number of dead, The Australian newspaper reported.

"No good news... I can't report that (surveillance aircraft) have seen people alive in the water at this point in time," Clare added. "This is looking increasingly grim by the hour,'' he told Macquarie Radio.

He said the ocean was "pretty rough," but added "we are still in that critical window" for the rescue operation, The Australian said.

Clare said everyone on board the boat appeared to be from Afghanistan.

Authorities in Australia believe the boat started its journey in Indonesia, not Sri Lanka, as initially suggested by some in Indonesia, The Australian reported.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard, attending the United Nations Rio summit in Brazil, told reporters that "details are sketchy, but what is apparent is that there has been a large loss of life at sea."

'Perilous journeys'
Sky News Australia reported that the United Nations High Commission for Refugees had called on Australia to find safer ways for asylum seekers to seek protection.

The UNHCR said the boat's capsizing "reinforces the need for renewed international solidarity and cooperation to find protection options for people that would help to reduce the need for these perilous journeys by boat."

"UNHCR calls on Australia and countries in the region to redouble their efforts to provide safer and more secure options for people to find protection other than through these dangerous and exploitative boat journeys," it added in a statement.

Fears for 200 refugees as boat capsizes north of Australia

Refugees are a hot political issue in Australia. So far this year, more than 50 boats carrying more than 4,000 people have been detected by Australian authorities.

Refugees seeking asylum in Australia often set sail from Indonesia heading for Australia's Indian Ocean territory of Christmas Island in dangerous and overcrowded boats, with the help of people smugglers.

In December 2011, up to 200 died when an overcrowded boat sank off the coast of East Java.

In 2010, 50 asylum seekers died when their boat was thrown onto rocks at Christmas Island. In 2001, a crowded boat known as the SIEV X sank on its way to Australia with the loss of 350 lives.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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