Asylum seekers 'set fire to boat causing deadly explosion' off Australia
Asylum seekers deliberately doused their boat in petrol causing an explosion that killed five people and injured 51, according to claims by an Australian politician.
By Bonnie Malkin in Sydney
Last Updated: 9:03AM BST 16 Apr 2009
The boat, believed to be carrying asylum seekers from Afghanistan, was being escorted to a detention centre by the navy when the blast occurred in the early hours of Thursday morning, about 520 miles off of Darwin.
The vessel quickly sank, and all survivors were transferred to two navy ships. Authorities confirmed three passengers had died and two were missing. Four Australian defence force personnel were among the injured.
The navy, police and ambulance service were coordinating attempts to airlift those most seriously injured to hospitals in Darwin and Broome.
Colin Barnett, the Liberal premier of the state of West Australia, claimed the incident took place after a deliberate attempt by passengers to sabotage their boat.
“The refugees spread petrol their boat, the vessel they were on,” he said.
“Whether they ignited it or it just ignited is unknown at this stage. But clearly that caused a major explosion, not only injuring refugees but it's a great concern that four defence personnel also (received) significant injuries to them during this incident.”
The Australian government has refused to confirm his claims, although Bob Debus, the home affairs minister, did concede it was “a clear possibility”.
“We are not in the position to finally confirm whether that is so or not,” he said, speaking at a heated press conference.
“There is much speculation and if the premier of Western Australia chooses to speculate without having the kind of evidence that we think to be necessary to draw a final conclusion, that is up to him.”
Royal Australian Navy Rear Admiral Alan Du Toit said there were 49 suspected asylum seekers and crew on board the boat as well as a few Australian military personnel at the time of the explosion. He said the boat was not being refuelled at the time.
The small vessel was intercepted by the navy on Wednesday in the Indian Ocean and was under escort to the remote Australian territory of Christmas Island, where the government processes refugee applicants, when the blast took place near the engine compartment.
The increase in boat numbers has sparked debate in Australia over whether an easing of strict immigration regulations last year has emboldened people smugglers and would-be refugees.
The boat was the third carrying suspected asylum seekers to illegally enter Australian waters in the past two weeks and the sixth this year.
Immigration policy has long been a sensitive issue in Australia.
In the lead up to an election in 2001 the Liberal government, led by John Howard, falsely claimed that asylum seekers had thrown children overboard in a presumed ploy to secure rescue and passage to Australia.
The Children Overboard affair, as it became known, was widely credited with winning the party re-election.
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