Three dead as Australia-bound refugee boat explodes

Sydney, April 16 (Inditop) Three people died, two went missing and dozens were injured in an explosion Thursday aboard a boat carrying asylum seekers whom the Australian Navy was escorting to Christmas Island.

The boat arrived Wednesday off Australia’s west coast from Indonesia carrying 49 people believed to be from Afghanistan.

The vessel, which was intercepted near Ashmore Reef, sank after the explosion. West Australian state head Colin Barnett claimed the boat was deliberately set alight by those on board.

Survivors were picked up by HMAS Childers and HMAS Albany.

Three or four of those injured were Australian officers aboard the refugee boat at the time of the pre-dawn explosion.

The HMAS Tobruk, which has doctors and helicopters on board, is to rendezvous with the other two navy vessels, and the severely injured are to be airlifted to either Broome or Darwin.

The boat is the sixth vessel with asylum seekers on board to arrive in Australian waters this year and the fourth in a fortnight.

Opposition Liberal Party immigration spokeswoman Sharman Stone blamed the government for the rash of arrivals at the start of what is called the people-smuggling season.

“You can’t announce a soft policy and then expect people not to lose their lives through people-smuggling efforts,” she said. “We were literally inviting a new surge to occur. That’s what we’ve seen.”

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s Labour government has allowed asylum seekers who make landfall to stay in the country while their visa applications are processed. Arrivals are taken to Australia’s Indian Ocean territory of Christmas Island to await a decision.

Under former prime minister John Howard, boats were intercepted and asylum seekers taken to Nauru or other Pacific island countries that hosted offshore immigration centres on Canberra’s behalf.

The so-called Pacific Solution was credited with stopping the flow of unwanted arrivals but also widely criticised for being inhumane.