Skip to main content

Australia trying to rescue people stranded near Christmas Island

By the CNN Wire Staff
  • NEW: 28 are dead after boat carrying asylum seekers crashes into cliffs
  • NEW: Australian minister says 44 have been rescued
  • The group will be transferred to Christmas Island, police say

(CNN) -- At least 28 people were killed Wednesday after a boat carrying asylum seekers crashed into cliffs along the shore near the coast of Christmas Island, Australia's minister for immigration and citizenship said.

Rescuers were able to pull 43 people from the "dangerous" waters and one person was able to swim to shore.

"It's a very difficult situation for everybody involved and of course, particularly, for those on Christmas Island: for the asylum seekers and for those involved in the rescue," Minister Chris Bowen said in an Australian radio interview. "Those involved in the rescue -- both the naval officials, the customs officials and the locals -- did an outstanding job in saving so many people yesterday."

Bowen noted -- as Australia's border protection agency did earlier -- that weather in the area is treacherous.

Asylum seekers shipwrecked
Asylum boat crashes into rocks
Fact Box
Timeline of December 15 rescue bid in local time

-- 5:48 am. Border Protection Command notified a vessel has been spotted about 200 meters from Rocky Point, Christmas Island
-- 6:00 am. HMAS Pirie assigned to respond
-- Federal police report seeing the vessel being washed onto the shoreline at Rocky Point, causing the people onboard to be thrown into the water. The area's geography made it hard for help to be rendered from shore. Authorities and residents throw life jackets to people in the water.
-- 6:35 am. HMAS Pirie requested helped from ACV Triton to respond. ACV Triton immediately responded

Source: Australia's Customs and Border Protection

"The rescue is being conducted in extremely difficult and dangerous conditions," the Australia's border protection agency said in a statement. '"We will continue the search until last light and review the situation and determine what further actions might need to be taken before first light tomorrow."

Bowen said 11 of the survivors were "clearly children or say they're under 18. Of the deceased, we don't know yet." Bowen also said it was unclear how many people were on the boat.

"People who have survived say that there were between 70 and 100, but we really don't know and we probably never will," he said.

Most of the people on the boat were from Iran and Iraq, a rescue worker told Sydney radio station 2GB.

"Eyewitnesses told us that they saw babies being held in people's arms and then when the boat was hit by the wave and crashed up against the rocks, they could no longer see those young babies," said Jessica Campanaro, a reporter with the Australian radio station.

"There is an ongoing situation which involves a rescue of people off Christmas Island," a statement from Australian Customs and Border Protection said. "Our paramount priority is the safety of all involved."

The group will be transferred to Christmas Island where they will undergo security, identity and health checks and their reasons for travel will be established, according to the Customs and Border Protection statement.

The tragedy has spurred discussions of Australia's immigration policies, but Minister Bowen said there would time enough for those discussions later.

"It's appropriate that there be a political discussion about this, and people will have strong views," he said. "My focus, together with [Minister for Home Affairs] Brendan O'Connor and the prime minister [Julia Gillard] is on the situation we have at Christmas Island. There'll be inquiries and investigations, but I think what we can best do today is lend our support to the valiant rescue efforts of our naval and customs personnel, and also the locals on Christmas Island who responded magnificently."

Christmas Island is an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean, nearer to the Philippines than to Australia. The island is about 1,600 miles northwest of the western Australian city of Perth and 220 miles south of the Indonesian capital, Jakarta.

CNN's Mila Sanina contributed to this report.