Posted on November 2nd, 2009

By Walter Jayawardhana

Australian radio reports said that a boat with about 20 people has sunk off between Cocos Islands and Australia while an atttempt was made to rescue the people in the boat.

Reports said the boat has capsized and 17 were rescued while the others were feared drowned.

Earlier in the area boats with Tamil asylum seekers were travelling. It is not yet known exactly who these people feared missing at the moment.

Australian sources said the boat capsized when it was attempted to be rescued reacting to the large vessels attempting to help.

Chief of Defence Force Angus Houston said the vessel sunk after capsizing during the initial rescue operation.

“I understand when the first ship got there, this vessel was still intact,” he said.

“Somehow or other during the process of interaction between the ship and trawler and also the stricken vessel, there’s been capsize and people ended up in the water.”

Home Affairs Minister Brendan O’Connor said all efforts would be made in the search for those still missing.

It is believed about 40 people were aboard the vessel when it sunk.

The 17 people rescued so far were now aboard a commercial vessel, the LNG Pioneer, but the search for those still missing was being hampered because it was not yet light.

Mr O’Connor said it was unclear how many people remained missing.

“We can’t determine that at this point,” he told Sky News.

“We are working with the commercial vessels and will continue to do so until we’ve done everything we can to rescue these people who have been on an unseaworthy vessel.

“It’s been a very difficult operation, and things will hopefully be easier in terms of searching for any passengers that may still be requiring assistance once there is light.”

Authorities are yet to determine if the group are asylum seekers.

“We want to make sure that we work with the commercial vessels that are in the area and ensure the safety and wellbeing of the passengers that have been rescued,” Mr O’Connor said.

“Once we’ve done that we can certainly work through those other issues.”

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) Rescue Coordination Centre responded to a distress signal from the vessel, which was 350 nautical miles northwest of the Cocos Islands, late on Sunday night.

The boat was in Australia’s search and rescue zone.

The centre broadcast a message to all shipping asking any vessels in the area to render assistance, an AMSA spokeswoman said.

Two vessels responded, including the LNG Pioneer, which threw life rafts to the people in distress.

A Taiwanese vessel also responded to the call for help and is assisting the LNG Pioneer.

A Royal Australian Air Force P-3 Orion plane was also en route to assist early on Monday, the spokeswoman said.

“We believe there were approximately 40 people on board the (sunken) vessel but we don’t have an exact number,” the spokeswoman said.

“We haven’t had any confirmation of any bodies being recovered so we are still hopeful, but we have grave fears for their safety given they have been in the water for some time.”

AMSA first received notice a boat had sunk about 10.40pm on Sunday

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