Australian island death toll reaches 30

Friday, December 17, 2010

SYDNEY -- Police divers have pulled two bodies from the sunken wreckage of a boat that was packed with asylum seekers trying to reach Australia when it was smashed on rocks at a remote island, taking the death toll from the disaster to 30.

Home Affairs Minister Brendan O'Connor said today the bodies of a man and a boy aged about 11 were found near the hulk of the wooden boat Thursday, when seas calmed enough for divers to enter the water.

With possibly scores of people still missing from Wednesday's crash, officials said there was little hope of finding anyone else alive.

"The sad reality is we are now looking at more a recovery of bodies operation than a search for survivors," Immigration Minister Chris Bowen told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.

The boat, carrying up to 100 asylum seekers of Iraqi, Iranian and Kurdish origin, smashed into the jagged, limestone cliffs of Christmas Island. Twelve men, nine women and seven children were among the dead, the Customs and Border Protection Service said.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard warned the death toll is likely to rise, though officials have not been able to establish how many people were aboard the boat.

More than two dozen survivors were being cared for at a local hospital, and authorities transported five people with the worst injuries to mainland Australia for treatment. A victim identification team arrived Thursday, and trauma counselors, Red Cross workers and interpreters were on hand to help the 25 men, eight women and nine children who survived.

It emerged Friday that seven of those who died on the vessel were related to a man being detained on Christmas Island after earlier making the sea journey to Australia. Local government leader Gordon Thomson said the man had been told his wife, uncle and "several other close relatives" were among the dead.

Christmas Island is the 52-square-mile (135-square-kilometer) tip of a dormant volcano poking out of the Indian Ocean 1,600 miles (2,600 kilometers) from the Australian mainland. It is far closer to the main Indonesian island of Java, and has become a target for people smugglers who load asylum seekers aboard the boats with promises they will take them to Australia.

Residents of Christmas Island, which houses a large detention center for asylum seekers that along with tourism forms the centerpiece of a local economy of about 1,500 people, watched helplessly from cliffs Wednesday as the stricken boat crashed ashore, dumping screaming men, women and children into the stormy surf.

Australian authorities acting on intelligence information usually track larger asylum seeker boats after they leave Indonesia and intercept them when they reach Australian waters. But smaller boats may not be spotted until they are very close to land.

The stricken boat appeared near the shore very early Wednesday morning in bad weather that hampered visibility. It took customs officials an hour and 13 minutes to reach the scene after they were first notified, Customs said.

Refugee advocates suggested Australian authorities should have known about the boat and done more to intercept it before it neared the rocky coast. But the prime minister praised the actions of the navy and customs officials who responded to the crisis, saying they risked their lives to save those in distress.

Asylum seekers have died in earlier journeys on the same route.

In October 2001, 374 people perished -- most of them believed to be from Afghanistan and Iraq -- when a boat sank en route from Indonesia to Christmas Island. Two years earlier, a boat believed to be carrying about 100 people disappeared and may have sunk.

Smith reported from Adelaide, Australia.

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