Boat with 150 asylum seekers capsizes off Australia, most saved

SYDNEY (AFP) - A boat carrying some 150 asylum seekers capsized off Christmas Island on Tuesday but the Australian navy saved most of them, rescuers said.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) said two navy ships were at the scene 70 nautical miles off the island, which is north-west of the Australian mainland.

"There were around 150 people on board," an AMSA spokesman told AFP, after an earlier tweet from the authority said up to 180 were on the boat.

"When it capsized, two naval vessels were at the scene and were able to get the vast majority of them out of the water very quickly," he added.

The spokesman said he could not confirm whether anyone died and the cause of the sinking was not immediately known.

The boat had earlier made a distress call and was being escorted to Christmas Island by the HMAS Albany when it tipped over in bad weather.

Reports said few of the people on board were wearing lifejackets at the time, and a Royal Australian Air Force plane dropped life rafts to those in trouble.

"We'd been in contact with the vessel most of the day and the navy was travelling with it to Christmas Island," the spokesman said, adding that rough seas had prevented sailors from boarding the boat.

Hundreds of asylum seekers have drowned on the dangerous sea voyage to Australia in recent years when their rickety and overloaded boats sank.

More than 13,000 asylum seekers have arrived in Australia by boat since January 1, piling pressure on the ruling Labor Party in an election year.

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