Many feared dead after asylum boat sinks

Last updated 14:35 24/07/2013

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Three people have died and as many as 157 asylum seekers have been rescued after their boat sank off the coast of Java.

An unknown number is still missing with Indonesian search and rescue operations continuing. An officer with Indonesia's rescue agency BASARNAS told AAP the  incident happened around 11pm on Tuesday local time.

The BASARNAS officer says, according to a report from Cianjur  police, 160 people have been pulled from the water.

''Three of them died and the other 157 survived,'' the said. ''But we're still gathering data on them.''

At least one of the dead is a child. Officials are not sure how many were on the boat but another  search and rescue official told AFP the number of passengers could be as high as 200.

The boat sank in heavy seas off the Indonesian fishing town of  Cidaun in western Java. Rescuers set out from the town in their own boats and vessels lent by police and fishermen. It is believed many of the asylum seekers involved were from  Iran and Sri Lanka.

The Australian Maritime and Safety Authority told AAP it had offered to help Indonesian authorities with the rescue operation if needed. 

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said the government is monitoring the unfolding tragedy.

''All of our agencies are actively following this and ensuring that everything that can be done is being done,'' Rudd told  reporters in Melbourne today. He said it underlined the need for a tough asylum seeker policy.

''We are seeing too many drownings, we are seeing too many sinkings, too many innocent people being lost at sea.''

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott said the only way to end tragedies like this was to stop the boats from coming.

''This is a tragic reminder of what happens when policy change in Australia puts the people smugglers back in business,'' he told reporters on the Gold Coast.

''I'm not crass enough to directly blame anyone in this country for tragedies at sea.

''But Mr Rudd should be man enough to admit that it was a  terrible tragic mistake that his government made back in 2008 when they reversed the policies that worked.''

Immigration Minister Tony Burke said he would consider the government's tough new asylum seeker policy a success when the drownings stopped.

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- Sydney Morning Herald

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