CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — A boat carrying asylum seekers to Australia capsized Wednesday and 123 people were rescued from the Indian Ocean, Prime Minister Julia Gillard said, less than a week after more than 90 people drowned on a similar journey.
Gillard told Parliament that most if not all the people on board had been rescued.
Two merchant ships collected survivors initially, and Gillard told Parliament that two Australian warships and a military aircraft that can drop life rafts on the sea joined the search by late Wednesday.
“There is reason to believe that there are around 123 to 133 people on board,” she said. “My best advice is that 123 people have been rescued.”
Imprecise numbers for the boat’s occupants mean they could not say if anyone was missing, she added.
The area is 200 kilometers (120 miles) north of Australia’s Christmas Island and 185 kilometers (115 kilometers) south of the main Indonesian island of Java. The boat capsized in Indonesia’s search and rescue zone but Australian authorities had raised the alarm, Australian Maritime Safety Authority spokeswoman Jo Meehan said.
The first merchant ship reached the scene more than four hours later, she said.
Last Thursday, 110 people were rescued when a boat carrying more than 200 mostly Afghan asylum seekers capsized in the same area. Only 17 bodies were recovered.
The survivors’ refugee applications were being assessed at Christmas Island, where Australia runs an immigration detention center.
Australia is a common destination for boats carrying asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Iraq, Sri Lanka and other poor or war-torn countries.
Last week’s disaster rekindled debate in Parliament on how Australia should deter asylum seekers from risking the hazardous sea journey. The government wants to send new boat arrivals to Malaysia in exchange for accepting U.N.-recognized refugees living there. The opposition won’t support the legislation because Malaysia has not signed the Refugee Convention.