A small boat packed with asylum seekers has smashed aground on rocks in a storm off an Australian island, hurling passengers into the churning water where at least 27 died.
Locals on Christmas Island watched in horror from a cliff as the boat – carrying about 70 people – broke apart with a crack, dumping screaming men, women and children into monstrous waves that pounded them against the rocks.
“It was just horrible. People getting crushed. Bodies, dead children, the whole thing was pretty awful,” islander Simon Prince said.
Australian Customs said that 27 bodies had been recovered from the water. Forty-one survivors were pulled from the sea, and one person made it to shore.
“The rescue is being conducted in extremely difficult and dangerous conditions,” a spokesman said. “The search and rescue situation is ongoing.”
Women and children were among the dead, Western Australia state Premier Colin Barnett said.
Acting Prime Minister Wayne Swan said the vessel was a people smuggler’s boat, but it was not clear where the passengers were from.
Christmas Island is a remote Australian territory closer to Indonesia than the Australian mainland and a frequent target of refugee hopefuls, who are housed in a detention centre there.
Australia is a prime destination for people from poor, often war-ravaged countries such as Afghanistan who want to start a new life.
“This incident is a tragic reminder of the danger faced by people fleeing persecution and human rights violations in their home countries, and the desperate measures they will resort to in search of safety,” said Richard Towle, the United Nations Refugee Agency’s regional representative.