Many missing as 110 survive Australia boat capsize

Three people were confirmed dead and dozens more are missing as rescuers scoured the ocean Friday after 110 survivors were found from a boat that capsized off Australia's Christmas Island.

"We have 110 survivors and three confirmed dead so far," a spokeswoman from Australia's Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA), which is working with Indonesia's search and rescue authority Basarnas, told AFP.

One of the survivors from the boat believed to be carrying 200 people was a 13-year-old boy. They have been taken by ship to Christmas Island in the remote Indian Ocean.

"The survivors have arrived at Christmas Island. They were rescued wearing life jackets and we are quite confident we will could recover more survivors," added the spokeswoman, who said the water temperature was warm.

The ship, en route from Sri Lanka, issued a distress call and capsized 120 nautical miles north of Christmas Island, 2,600 kilometres (1,600 miles) from the Australian mainland on Thursday afternoon.

It was spotted by an Australian Customs and Border Protection surveillance plane.

The capsize is the latest in a series of refugee boat disasters in the Indian Ocean in recent years, as rickety, overloaded vessels packed with desperate migrants sink on their way to Australia.

Four merchant vessels, two Australian Defence Force ships and five aircraft are involved in the search and Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare said all those on the stricken boat were believed to be men.

"Initial indications suggest there were approximately 200 people on the vessel," he told reporters. "One survivor is reported to be a 13-year-old boy, the remainder are reported to be all adults.

"We're still in that critical window where more lives could be saved," he added. "People can survive out there for up to 36 hours if they have either lifejackets or they have debris to hold onto."

Clare said about 40 survivors were found clinging to the upturned hull of the boat on Thursday afternoon, while others were discovered holding onto debris up to three nautical miles from the scene.

There had been rumours of another vessel also in distress, but Clare said this was not true.

Though they come in relatively small numbers by global standards, asylum-seekers are a sensitive political issue in Australia, dominating 2010 elections due to a record 6,555 arrivals.

Direct asylum-seeker journeys from Sri Lanka have historically been rare but navy sources in Colombo have reported a marked increase in Australia-bound people-smuggling operations, with about 200 arrests in recent weeks.

Indonesia is a more common transit point for those trying to reach Christmas Island, which is closer to Java than mainland Australia, but many fail to reach their destination.

In December, a boat carrying around 250 mostly Afghan and Iranian asylum-seekers sank in Indonesian waters on its way to Christmas Island, with only 47 surviving.

Some 50 refugees were killed in a horror shipwreck on the island's cliffs in December 2010. Fifteen were children aged 10 years or younger, with one a baby just three months old.

The worst known refugee boat disaster off Australia in recent years was the sinking of the SIEV X in 2001, which killed 353 of the more than 400 asylum-seekers on board.

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