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Indonesian team rescues 157 'asylum seekers' after boat sinks off of Java

A search team has rescued at least 157 suspected asylum seekers after their boat sank off the south coast of Indonesia. It is believed the boat had been heading for Australia.

At least three people, including one child, perished off of the Indonesian island of Java early Wednesday when a boat carrying nearly 200 believed asylum seekers sank. A rescue operation brought 157 of the passengers to safety, according to Indonesian authorities. It was not immediately clear how many remained missing.

"[The survivors] have been taken to a temporary immigration holding facility," Rochmali, the head of the rescue team, told reporters.

Earlier reports by Australian media had said up to 60 people were feared dead.

The boat, carrying between 150 and 170 asylum seekers, reportedly broke up in heavy seas and sank late Tuesday evening. The passengers were believed to have mostly been from Iran and Sri Lanka.

Thousands of asylum seekers attempt to reach Australia by boat every year, with 15,000 succeeding in reaching its shores this year alone and hundreds more dying during the journey.

With an election looming in a few weeks, the influx of asylum seekers has become a hot political issue in Australia. On Friday, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced a new hard-line plan to send all unauthorized migrants to Papua New Guinea for assessment and eventual settlement.

Human rights groups widely condemned the move, noting that the number of refugees attempting to reach Australia remained comparatively small. Amnesty International accused Australia of turning its back on the world's most vulnerable people.

ccp,ph/jm (AFP, Reuters)