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15.12.2010 Australia

Many feared dead in Australia asylum shipwreck

By BBC
Many feared dead in Australia asylum shipwreck
LISTEN DEC 15, 2010


Many people are feared to have drowned after a boat carrying suspected asylum seekers crashed into rocks on Australia's Christmas Island.

Pictures from the scene showed the boat, which was thought to be carrying dozens of people, smashed to pieces.

Witnesses said they could do little to help as the seas were too rough to approach the boat.

The boat appeared to be trying to land at Christmas Island, where Australia has an immigration detention centre.

The BBC's Nick Bryant, in Sydney, says he understands that about 70 people were on the vessel and about 40 were rescued.

Acting Prime Minister Wayne Swan, standing in for Julia Gillard while she is on holiday, confirmed that some people had died but could not say how many.

"A number of people have been rescued, but sadly some bodies have been retrieved."

'Desperate'
Residents of Christmas Island said they were alerted to the disaster by the sounds of screaming from the shore.

Some threw ropes and life jackets to the people in the water.

"We threw ropes over the cliffs and we must have thrown in a couple of hundred lifejackets," one resident was quoted as saying by the West Australian newspaper website.

"About 15 or 20 people managed to get into the jackets but there are bodies all over the water," said the man, who did not want his name released.

Residents of Christmas Island said they were alerted to the disaster by the sounds of screaming from the shore.

Some threw ropes and life jackets to the people in the water.

"We threw ropes over the cliffs and we must have thrown in a couple of hundred lifejackets," one resident was quoted as saying by the West Australian newspaper website.

"About 15 or 20 people managed to get into the jackets but there are bodies all over the water," said the man, who did not want his name released.

One witness, documentary maker Philip Stewart, said he arrived at the shore about an hour after the boat first hit the rocks and it was already in pieces.

He said he saw about seven survivors but conditions were too rough for rescuers to get close enough to help.

"They were waving and shouting and screaming for help," he told Australia's ABC News.

"They were desperate, by that stage they had been in the water for an hour already.

"They hung on for as long as they possibly could and each one of them was eventually thrown off into the sea onto the rocks."

He said he saw one person picked up while the others drowned.

Australia has seen an increase this year in asylum seekers arriving by boat.

There are currently almost 3,000 people in the Christmas Island processing centre waiting for officials to rule on their cases.

The island is in the Indian Ocean, about 1200km (750 miles) north-west of the Australian mainland and about 300km south of Indonesia.






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