One dead, 88 rescued in Australia refugee boat sinking

SYDNEY (AFP) - Australian authorities were scouring remote seas for survivors on Saturday after a people-smuggling boat carrying 97 went down, with 88 people rescued so far and the body of a baby found.

Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare said the boat first issued a distress call in rough seas north of Christmas Island, between Australia and Indonesia, on Friday morning.

Rescuers were unable to reach the scene until 10 pm (1200 GMT), and a short time later Mr Clare said a huge wave broke over the boat and it began to sink.

"Last night our officers have rescued 88 people and they've recovered the body of a little baby boy," Mr Clare told reporters, adding that the infant was reportedly less than a year old.

"The advice to me is that there were 97 people on board and a search and rescue effort is happening right now."

Two navy patrol boats and a merchant vessel were combing the seas 87 nautical miles north of Christmas Island, along with a military aircraft and two maritime rescue planes.

The ill-fated ship was believed to have originated in Indonesia with passengers from Iran, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, Mr Clare said.

Mr Clare said the 88 plucked from the sea overnight had been transferred to immigration detention on the remote island, Australia's main facility for holding asylum-seekers arriving by boat.

It is the second asylum boat incident on the dangerous people-smuggling sea passage from Java in a week - a vessel issued a distress signal last Friday after taking on water but was ultimately able to fix its engine.

Australia's Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was in Indonesia holding diplomatic talks on the sensitive issue with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono at the time.

Mr Rudd said Saturday's emergency "underlines the absolute importance of Australia continu(ing) to adjust its policy to meet changing circumstances in the region and in the world".

"The loss of any child's life or of any person's life at sea in these sorts of circumstances is a genuine human tragedy," the prime minister said.

"Our response in terms of elevating the work we do cooperatively with the Indonesians and others is now urgent."

Promising that he would "have more to say" regarding policy changes ahead of this year's elections, Mr Rudd highlighted source and transit country talks and tightening refugee claims and approvals as key areas.

"Other measures in terms of the continued adjustment of our border protection policy are critical," he said.

Hundreds of asylum-seekers have drowned on the dangerous sea voyage from Indonesia when their rickety, overloaded boats sank.

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

It is a controversial political issue likely to loom large in the lead-up to polls to be held later this year.

The conservative opposition accuses Labor of losing control of Australia's borders and proposes using the navy to tow back people-smuggling boats - a plan not welcomed by Jakarta.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.