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Over 200 aslyum-seekers feared dead between Indonesia and Australia

Reuters/Dimas Aro

More than 200 people were feared dead after a heavily overloaded boat carrying asylum-seekers, mostly from Afghanistan and Iran, sank off Indonesia en route to Australia, rescuers said Sunday.

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Australia's government called the sinking "a terrible tragedy" but campaign groups accused ministers of hypocrisy because of the country’s attempts to stop refugees arriving on its shores.

The fibreglass boat had a capacity of 100 but was carrying about 250 people when it sank on Saturday off eastern Java, in heavy rain and high waves, Indonesian officials said.

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It was on its way to Christmas Island, an Australian territory that is often a destination for immigrants.

Thirty-three people were rescued from the shark-infested waters, officials said, adding that the others are unlikely to have survived.

Bad weather and waves of up to five metres hampered rescue efforts on Sunday, with 300 rescuers including navy and police officers deployed to comb the sea for bodies.

Survivors were floating in the sea for six hours before being rescued by fishermen.

They are being kept at a community hall near Prigi beach, 640 kilometres south-east of Indonesia's capital Jakarta. They have official UN documentation to prove their refugee status.

Thousands of asylum-seekers head for Australia via south-east Asia every year.

People-smugglers often take them on the dangerous sea voyage from Indonesia.

The number of boatpeople arriving in Australia rose to almost 900 in November with at least nine ships intercepted in Australian waters so far this month.

Ian Rintoul, coordinator of the Refugee Action Coalition, said any sympathy the Australian government or opposition expressed for those who died at sea would amount to "hypocrisy" until the parties adopted humane policies.

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