Asia-Pacific

Christmas Island shipwreck kills asylum seekers

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Media captionEyewitness: "It was like a scene from a horror movie"

At least 27 people have died after a boat carrying suspected asylum seekers crashed into rocks on Australia's Christmas Island.

Australian Customs officials said 42 people had been rescued.

Witnesses said they could do little to help as the boat, believed to be carrying Iranians and Iraqis, was smashed to pieces in rough seas.

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

'Engine failed'

Australia's Customs and Border Protection Service said in a statement that 27 bodies had been recovered from the water.

Forty-one survivors were plucked from the sea, and one person made it to shore.

Earlier, Deputy Prime Minister Wayne Swan, standing in for Julia Gillard while she is on holiday, said he believed that the boat belonged to people smugglers but he did not know where they were from.

A spokeswoman for the Royal Flying Doctor Service said 30 people were being treated for injuries and three of them were critically ill.

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

"We threw ropes over the cliffs and we must have thrown in a couple of hundred life-jackets," 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.

"There are dead babies, dead women and dead children in the water. The swell is unbelievably big."

Another resident, Simon Prince, told Associated Press: "The engine had failed. They were washing backward and forward very close to the cliffs here, which are jagged limestone cliffs, very nasty.

"When the boat hit the cliff there was a sickening crack. All the people on board rushed to the land side, which is the worst thing they could do."

'Screaming for help'

Australian media said residents alerted the police at 0545 (2045 GMT on Tuesday).

Australia Customs launched two inflatable boats to rescue survivors.

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 on to 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 1,200km (750 miles) north-west of the Australian mainland and about 300km south of Indonesia.

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