Australia resumes hunt for refugee boat victims, toll rises

At least 28 asylum seekers have been found dead off Christmas Island.

Last Updated: Dec 16, 2010, 09:24 AM IST

Sydney: Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard on Thursday warned further bodies would be recovered after a boat carrying asylum seekers hit rocks and was shattered by huge waves, killing at least 28 people.

The wooden craft, believed to be crowded with up to 100 Iraqi and Iranian asylum seekers and their children, hit rocks at Christmas Island Wednesday and was shattered by huge waves as traumatised residents looked on helplessly.

"We do not know with any certainty how many people there were on the boat,” Gillard told reporters.

"We have got to prepare ourselves for the likelihood that more bodies will be found and there will be further loss of life than we know now."

Customs officials said the search for survivors and the dead resumed at first light on the west coast. They could not confirm how long the rescue operation would last.

Australian Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said the death toll from the disaster had risen to 28 -- from 27 late Wednesday -- while 44 people had been saved with the help of Navy personnel and Christmas Island residents.

"The latest report that I have is that we have 44 people rescued and 28 deceased," he said.

But he warned that survivors had reported that 70-100 people were on board the rickety boat, which witnesses said was thought to be carrying few life jackets. The Flying Doctors have said up to 50 were believed dead.

"I don`t like to speculate on any particular outcome, but obviously the rescuers will be doing their best... to salvage and rescue persons still in the water or to get any bodies they`re able to get out of the water," Bowen said.

But he also hinted that the chances of finding survivors in "particularly treacherous" seas churned up by an approaching monsoonal storm were dwindling, adding that the exact number of dead would "probably never" be known.

He declined to comment on how the boat managed to get so close to the remote island -- closely watched as the main people-smuggling route from Indonesia -- without being intercepted by border police.

"I`m not in the position to comment on that one way or another," Bowen said. "There`ll be an appropriate time for investigation and for further information to be released on that."

At least 5,000 asylum seekers from Iraq, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka have made their way to Australia this year, often on leaky boats from Indonesia.

Lawyers and refugee advocates including Amnesty and the UNHCR said the tragedy highlighted the desperate plight of refugees and urged greater cooperation between nations for more humane solutions.

Shocked survivors of the wreck, including 11 children, huddled in a hospital and a reception centre on Christmas Island, where a makeshift morgue was also set up. Local residents were reeling from the horror of what they witnessed.

Two seriously injured women were flown to hospital in Perth, one with abdominal injuries and the other suffering from respiratory problems from inhaling sea water and diesel, medics from the Flying Doctors said.

Many of the injured were treated by medical services on Christmas Island, home to Australia`s main immigration detention centre for boat people.

Bureau Report