Rescue operation under way for capsized boat of asylum seekers headed to Australia

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority reported that an Australian Navy ship and a cargo ship had rescued 73 survivors near Indonesia. 

By , Associated Press

A boat carrying about 200 people capsized south of Indonesia and scores were feared drowned Thursday in an apparent attempt to reach Australia to seek asylum. Indonesian and Australian navies launched efforts to rescue survivors.

Australian Broadcasting Corp. cited the Australian Maritime Safety Authority as reporting that an Australian Navy ship and a cargo ship had rescued 73 survivors. The authority's spokeswoman could not be immediately contacted for comment.

"We're doing all we can to get as many vessels and aircraft to the scene to assist as possible," AMSA spokesman Jonathan Wills told ABC.

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The boat capsized about 120 miles north of the Australian territory of Christmas Island — and about the same distance south of Indonesia — with "up to 200 people" on board, the Australian Customs Service said in a statement.

It was not immediately clear where the passengers were from.

Christmas Island, in the Indian Ocean, is closer to Indonesia than the Australian mainland. It is a popular target for a growing number of asylum seekers, many from Iran, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, who attempt to reach Australia on overcrowded fishing boats from Indonesia — sometimes with deadly consequences.

"There's about 40 on the hull and the rest are in the water," Western Australia state Police Commissioner Karl O'Callaghan said earlier. "Some of the very early reports suggest that up to 75 people may have drowned, but I do stress that they're unconfirmed at this stage."

Gagah Prakoso, a spokesman for Indonesia's Search and Rescue Agency, said two Indonesian warships have been dispatched to scene. He said Indonesia has sent notice to all cargo ships passing near the area to help, but he was not sure whether any had reached the disaster scene.

Prakoso said the boat was reportedly carrying 206 people, but added that he could not yet say their country of origin or from where they departed.

Australian aircraft and Navy ships were helping with the rescue, the Customs statement said. They include a defense aircraft equipped with life rafts, a Customs surveillance aircraft and two Navy patrol boats.

In December 2010, an estimated 48 people died when an asylum seeker boat broke up against Christmas Island's rocky coast.

Last December, about 200 asylum seekers were feared drowned after their overcrowded ship sank off Indonesia's main island of Java.

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Associated Press Writer Ali Kotarumalos in Jakarta contributed to this report.

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