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Thursday, April 16, 2009

Asylum seekers die in explosion off coast of Australia

SYDNEY - Three refugees have been killed and two people are missing after their boat exploded off the northwestern coast of Australia, authorities confirmed Thursday.

The small wooden fishing vessel, containing 49 asylum seekers thought to be from Iraq or Afghanistan, was being held by Australian border patrol vessels on Ashmore Reef after it was intercepted Wednesday.

The explosion occurred at 6:15 a.m. in remote waters 840 kilometers west of Darwin in the Northern Territory and 610 kilometers north of Broome in Western Australia.

The incident happened while a Royal Australian Navy ship was awaiting another vessel to take the refugees to a Christmas Island detention facility for processing.

Western Australian Premier Colin Barnett said in a press conference, ''It's understood that persons on the boat spread petrol and that ignited, causing an explosion.''

But Home Affairs Minister Bob Debus refused to confirm the explosion had been deliberate, saying the investigation into the incident was ongoing.

More than 50 people were injured in the explosion, including all the refugees and four Australian defense personnel, with the injuries ranging from minor burns to more serious wounds.

''All of them sustained injuries to one extent or another, some very minor in the form of almost like a sunburn, others obviously of a much more serious nature,'' Rear Adm. Allan Du Toit, commander of Border Protection, said.

While details are still sketchy, those injured are expected to be flown by helicopter to either Darwin or Broome for medical treatment before eventually being moved to Christmas Island for processing by immigration officials.

Most refugees from the Middle East, South Asia and Southeast Asia travel to Australia in rickety boats from ports in Indonesia, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, China and Vietnam.

In 2007-08, 25 people arrived illegally in Australia on three boats, but there has been a sharp increase in 2008-09, with 377 people arriving on 12 boats, not including the most recent group.

The opposition has been quick to blame the government's recent softening of border protection policy as being behind the spike in asylum seekers arriving on Australia's shores.

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