SYDNEY, July 13 – A baby died and eight people were missing after a people smuggling boat carrying 97 sunk in remote seas, Australian officials said Saturday, as authorities searched for survivors.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd described it as a “genuine human tragedy” which underscored the importance of a regional response to people smuggling, with hundreds dying in recent years in refugee boat accidents.
The vessel, which capsized some 87 nautical miles north of Christmas Island, first issued a distress call in rough seas between Australia and Indonesia on Friday morning, Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare told reporters.
Rescuers were unable to reach the scene until 10:00 pm (1200 GMT), and a short time later 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,” said Clare, 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 Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) said a Customs ship reached the distressed vessel late Friday night and sent a boarding party shortly before a large wave caused it to capsize.
“A search of a 285 square nautical mile area involving two contracted aircraft and a Defence P3 Orion began at first light,” AMSA said.
“There is one deceased and an estimated eight people missing.”