A boat carrying dozens of suspected asylum seekers capsized in heavy seas off the Australian coast and many were feared dead.
Rescue efforts are under way and officials have declined to give any immediate confirmation of casualties or deaths in the accident. The boat crashed into jagged rocks on Christmas Island, an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean where refugee hopefuls are housed in a detention centre.
A series of photographs taken at the scene and published on The West Australian newspaper’s website show the wooden boat crashing into the rocks. The images also show people floating in the water amongst the wreckage. It is unclear if they are alive or dead.
The Australian Federal Police would say only that they were responding to a “maritime incident” involving a suspected illegal vessel on the island. “There is an ongoing situation which involves a rescue of people off Christmas Island. Our paramount priority is the safety of all involved,” the Customs and Border Protection Service said in a statement.
Acting prime minister Wayne Swan confirmed that some people were killed when the boat foundered. Mr Swan told reporters that some people were rescued but that bodies were retrieved from the sea.
Witnesses described seeing dead bodies – including children – floating in the water.
Simon Prince, who lives next to the cliff where the boat crashed, said he was woken by what he thought were cheers. He walked outside to the cliff and instead heard cries for help from a boat just offshore.
“The engine had failed. They were washing backward and forward very close to the cliffs here, which are jagged limestone cliffs, very nasty.”
He said the boat – about 20ft to 30ft with a cabin covered by a sheet of fabric or plastic – was carrying about 50 people, and was tossed about for an hour before it finally hit the rocks at the base of the cliff.
“When the boat hit the cliff there was a sickening crack. All the people on board rushed to the land side, which is the worst thing they could do, but I don’t think anybody could swim. I think there were about two lifeboats on board this thing,” Mr Prince said. It was just horrible. People getting crushed. Bodies, dead children, the whole thing was pretty awful.”