Australia rescues more than 200 from asylum boat

Australia rescued more than 200 asylum-seekers from a boat off Indonesia, officials said Friday as they confirmed that some navy ships are literally cracking under the strain of their work.

Authorities raced to help a vessel in Indonesian waters north of the remote Australian territory of Christmas Island late Wednesday, transferring the 211 people on board to naval ships.

"This boat was rescued by the Australian navy," said Immigration Minister Chris Bowen, adding that those on board included Sri Lankans, Iranians, Afghans and Pakistanis.

"It had reported difficulty," he told ABC Radio.

It is believed to be the largest number of people on a single vessel seeking asylum in Australia since Labor was elected in late 2007, with more than 7,000 boatpeople arriving in the country this year.

Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare said he had no details about the state of the boat but said the sea was sufficiently rough that the navy initially towed the craft until those onboard could be safely transferred.

The rescue came as the defence department ordered a detailed structural analysis of the patrol ships it uses to intercept boatpeople, after major cracking was found on three vessels.

"We've found cracking in the engine room of HMAS Armidale," Clare said.

"This is the part of the ship, the part of the boat that comes under the most strain, the most pressure, particularly in rough weather.

"And we've identified minor cracks in two others of our navy patrol boats."

Clare, who said the navy had made temporary fixes to all the boats and was developing a permanent repair plan, would not explicitly link the damage of the vessels to the rescue of asylum boats.

But he conceded there had been an increase in asylum-seeker boats in recent months after the government failed to pass the so-called "Malaysia Solution" they had hoped would deter people from making the dangerous sea voyage.

Under that plan boatpeople arriving in Australia would have been sent to Malaysia and in return Canberra would have resettled some of the Southeast Asian nation's registered refugees.

But the legislation failed to pass through parliament and boats have continued to arrive, with some 108 asylum-seeker vessels carrying 7,364 people recorded so far this year.

The figure is already more than the previous record of 6,555 set in 2010. Last year 4,565 boatpeople arrived.

Clare said asylum-seekers were "hurrying to get on boats as quickly as possible before this parliament implements legislation that would introduce a real disincentive for people to make that dangerous journey at all".

He said 300 people had died en route to Australia in the last seven months and there had been six times as many boats and people arrive in July as in the same month the previous year, when the Malaysian plan was still on the table.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard has ordered a three-person panel headed by former defence chief Angus Houston to review all options in dealing with asylum-seekers and he is expected to report back next week.

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