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Page last updated at 08:04 GMT, Thursday, 16 April 2009 09:04 UK

Explosion on asylum seekers' boat

Western Australia Premier Colin Barnett says refugees doused the boat with petrol

Three people have been killed and dozens injured after an explosion on a boat carrying asylum seekers that had been intercepted by Australia's navy.

The boat was carrying 49 refugees from Afghanistan, and was being towed to a detention centre on Christmas Island.

The premier of Western Australia told reporters that the refugees spread petrol on the boat, which then ignited.

The federal government has refused to confirm details of the incident, saying an investigation was under way.

Officials said two people were missing, and that the injured were being treated at hospitals in Darwin and Broome.

Among those hurt were four members of the Australian defence force, who had boarded the vessel.

'Surge'

This is the sixth boat carrying asylum seekers to arrive in Australian waters this year.

Map

Their numbers have totalled more than 250 - up from 179 refugees intercepted in all of 2008.

The opposition has blamed this "surge" on a softening of the country's immigration policy since Kevin Rudd became prime minister in late 2007.

The Rudd government scrapped the widely criticised policy of his predecessor John Howard under which asylum seekers and their children were detained for years in special centres in Nauru or Papua New Guinea under the so-called "Pacific Solution".

Asylum-seekers now arriving by boat are held on Christmas Island, but their claims must be expedited, with six-monthly case reviews by an ombudsman now government policy.

The BBC's Sydney correspondent Nick Bryant says the Australian government is worried about the rise of people-smuggling from or through the waters of Indonesia.

Earlier this week Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith told a people-smuggling conference in Bali that the tide of boat people might increase because of the fighting in Sri Lanka and Afghanistan and the global economic downturn.

The Indonesian government has promised to push through new laws enabling the criminal prosecution of people smugglers, but these have not yet been enacted.



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