One dead, 88 rescued in Australia refugee boat sinking

SYDNEY, New South Wales - Australian authorities were scouring remote seas for survivors Saturday after a people-smuggling boat carrying 97 went down, with 88 people rescued so far and the body of a baby found.

Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare said the boat first issued a distress call in rough seas north of Christmas Island, between Australia and Indonesia, on Friday morning.

Rescuers were unable to reach the scene until 10:00 pm (8:00 pm local time), and a short time later Clare said a huge wave broke over the boat and it began to sink.

"Last night our officers have rescued 88 people and they've recovered the body of a little baby boy," Clare told reporters, adding that the infant was reportedly less than a year old.

"The advice to me is that there were 97 people on board and a search and rescue effort is happening right now."

Two navy patrol boats and a merchant vessel were combing the seas 87 nautical miles north of Christmas Island, along with a military aircraft and two maritime rescue planes.

The ill-fated ship was believed to have originated in Indonesia with passengers from Iran, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, Clare said.

Clare said the 88 plucked from the sea overnight had been transferred to immigration detention on the remote island, Australia's main facility for holding asylum-seekers arriving by boat.

It is the second asylum boat incident on the dangerous people-smuggling sea passage from Java in a week - a vessel issued a distress signal last Friday after taking on water but was ultimately able to fix its engine.

Australia's Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was in Indonesia holding diplomatic talks on the sensitive issue with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono at the time.

Hundreds of asylum-seekers have drowned on the dangerous sea voyage from Indonesia when their rickety, overloaded boats sank.

More than 13,000 asylum-seekers have arrived in Australia by boat since January 1, piling pressure on the ruling Labor party in an election year. It is a controversial political issue likely to loom large in the lead-up

to polls to be held later this year.