SYDNEY — A Sri Lankan refugee boat with 200 people believed to be on board capsized off Australia’s remote Christmas Island Thursday, with police saying scores could have died.
The accident, which unfolded mid-afternoon in Indonesian waters, could become one of the worst refugee boat disasters off Australia since the SIEV X sank in 2001, killing 353 of the more than 400 asylum-seekers on board.
Australia’s Maritime Safety Authority said the ship issued a distress call about 0500 GMT and capsized 120 nautical miles north of the Indian Ocean territory, some 2,600 km from the Australian mainland. “We can confirm there are survivors but we can’t confirm numbers at this stage,” she said of the 200 people believed to be on board.
Western Australia police commissioner Karl O’Callaghan said a “large number” were feared to have perished. “Some of the very early reports suggest that up to 75 people may have drowned, but I do stress that they are unconfirmed at this stage,” O’Callaghan told reporters, adding that rescuers had spotted “40 (people) on the hull” with an unknown number of others in the water.
“We are very concerned for a large number of people who may have drowned,” he said. “We know from what we’ve been hearing from the aircraft that there’s not 200 life jackets on board.”
AMSA said the cargo ship WSA Dragon and Australian military vessel HMAS Wollongong were on the scene and were preparing to recover survivors from the water, while a defense aircraft dropped life-rafts which could hold 60 people.
“We can also confirm that survivors are wearing life jackets,” the AMSA spokeswoman said.
All aircraft and the two Australian military ships deployed had night search capabilities and operations would continue through the hours of darkness, she added, with another two merchant ships and two Indonesian navy boats en route. — AFP