Ninety people were still missing Friday morning as Australian and Indonesian search teams looked for survivors of a capsized boat south of Indonesia, according to Australian news reports.
The boat was believed to be carrying as many as 200 asylum seekers headed to Australia. As of late Thursday, the search teams had reportedly rescued 110 people, including a 13-year-old boy. Three men were found dead.
It was unclear where the boat set off from. When Australian authorities first got distress calls late Tuesday night, the boat didn’t indicate where it was, Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare said in Sydney. When they learned Wednesday morning that the boat was 38 nautical miles south of Indonesia, Australian officials advised it to go to Indonesia.
But the boat continued south despite its distress calls. Clare said that while Australian border protection officials were prepared Wednesday night to step in if their help was requested, they didn’t mobilize until Thursday, after getting “additional information that raised concerns about the safety of the vessel.”
Survivors have been taken to Christmas Island, some of them suffering injuries. The water is warm enough that those clinging to life jackets or other debris could survive 36 hours, Clare said.
"We are still in that critical window where more lives could be saved,'' Clare said.
The flow of asylum seekers to Australia, many risking their lives on crowded boats, has spurred intense political debate in Australia. Though many Australians sought to keep politics out of the tragedy, the disaster has already spurred fresh arguments over how the government has handled refugees.
"It shows what a horrible business this whole people-smuggling racket is," opposition leader Tony Abbott told the Nine Network. "Obviously it's important we stop it one way or another, but I don't think today is a day for politics.”
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Video: Jo Meehan of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority discusses the capsizing of a vessel carrying asylum seekers north of Christmas Island. Credit: Australian Broadcasting Corp.