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Boat capsizes off Cocos Islands

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About 12 people are missing after a boat believed to be carrying 40 people sank off the Cocos Islands in the Indian Ocean, Australian officials say.

Twenty-seven people have been rescued and one person has been confirmed dead, an Australian cabinet minister said.

The boat sent a distress signal on Sunday and capsized after being reached by a Taiwanese fishing trawler.

The Cocos Islands - an Australian ocean territory - lie roughly halfway between Australia and Sri Lanka.

Aircraft despatched

The rescued passengers were on board two vessels, Australia's Home Affairs Minister Brendan O'Connor said.

"Eighteen are on board the LNG Pioneer and nine on board the [Taiwanese fishing vessel] FV Kuamg," he said.

"The FV Kuamg also has one deceased person on board."

The two commercial vessels are remaining in the area to help three Australian aircraft which have arrived to help with the search.

Hopes are fading of finding more survivors, who would be facing their second night in the water after the boat sank late on Sunday.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) said it had received a distress signal on Sunday reporting that a boat had a hole in its hull and was taking on water in rough seas about 350 nautical miles (650km) north-west of the island group.

The chief of the Australian Defence Force, Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, told reporters that a Taiwanese trawler had been first to get to the scene late on Sunday night

"When the first ship got there this vessel was still intact," he said.

By the time the merchant ship, LNG Pioneer, had arrived, the boat had already sunk, he said.

Asylum debate

It is unclear where the vessel was heading or whether it was carrying asylum seekers.

A boat with suspected asylum seekers off Australia's north-west coast. Photo: 15 September 2009
Refugee boats have become a big political issue in Australia

Mr O'Connor said the passengers' safety was "the first and only matter that is of concern at this point" but that their status would be investigated later.

Officials said the rescued people could be taken to Australia's immigration detention centre on Christmas Island.

Dozens of boats carrying asylum seekers, mostly from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, have been intercepted trying to reach Australia this year, sparking a fierce political and public debate.

On Saturday, the government announced the capacity of the Christmas Island detention centre would be increased to more than 2,000 beds to cope with the influx.



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