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a camera and an open canvas

Christmas Island Disaster

THREE baby girls and an infant boy are among 30 people whose bodies have been pulled from Christmas Island's deadly seas, while dozens remain missing as a search operation continues after Wednesday's disaster.

A Custom Department spokeswoman this morning confirmed the death toll had risen to 30 after a fragile Indonesian fishing boat packed with up to 100 asylum seekers was smashed against the island's jagged limestone coast.

The new toll comes as more questions emerge over the navy's failure to intercept the boat before it got into strife.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard said the people of Christmas Island would never forget what they had seen. ''We saw a truly horrific event, a terrible human tragedy,'' she said. ''I know the nation is shocked by what we have seen.''

She praised the residents, naval and border protection officers who had put themselves in harm's way to save 42 Iraqi, Iranian and Kurdish survivors.

But an initial outbreak of political bipartisanship after the incident was broken yesterday, with the opposition refusing to join Ms Gillard's proposed cross-party committee to examine the incident.

The Prime Minister had proposed that two government ministers, their opposition equivalents and representatives from the Greens and the independents work together with relevant agencies to receive reports on the disaster.

But the opposition said it did not see the need for a special standing committee.
Acting leader Julie Bishop said there were established procedures for incidents of this nature, including a protocol for briefing the opposition.

Denying that her invitation to Coalition frontbenchers was a ploy to spread political liability for the incident, Ms Gillard said she had wanted to avoid a repeat of the ''children overboard'' affair, which involved a long dispute about the facts. ''There's one motivation behind putting this group together, and it's to make sure people have got the facts,'' she said.

The incident will also be the subject of a West Australian coronial inquest, a criminal investigation centred on people smuggling and an immediate review by Customs.

Earlier yesterday, independent Rob Oakeshott called on Ms Gillard to give a full explanation of what happened. ''Rumours and allegations are shooting through communities such as mine on the mid-north coast of NSW, with the worst being that government authorities allowed this to happen,'' he said.

Ms Gillard said that because the boat had approached Christmas Island in darkness and extreme weather, it hadn't been detected until it was seen from the island.

Asked if this indicated a problem with the surveillance, Ms Gillard said: ''The advice to me is that in very rough and very difficult circumstances there are clearly limits … to what can be achieved through the use of radar and other surveillance mechanisms''.

Some refugee advocates claimed authorities this week had been tracking the boat as it approached Christmas Island and delayed reaching a vessel clearly in distress.

Home Affairs Minister Brendan O'Connor rejected the suggestion. He told Sky News ''extraordinarily bad weather'' and the vessel's wood construction meant ''radar detection is nigh on impossible … This vessel was not being tracked.''

Releasing a timeline that showed Customs was first alerted to the boat at 5.48am, Ms Gillard said: ''The boat wasn't detected until it was seen from Christmas Island itself.''

A small tender from HMAS Pirie arrived at the scene to begin a rescue at 7.01am, with another from the Customs vessel Triton arriving at 7.22am. Australian Federal Police on shore had seen people thrown into the water at 6.31am.

When she was asked on The 7.30 Report last night whether she had blood on her hands, Ms Gillard said: ''No one should let the people smugglers off the hook here … People smugglers who ply this evil trade are responsible.''

Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison defended Customs and Border Security and Defence personnel from criticism, saying their ''acts of heroism in the last 48 hours have been extraordinary''.

Seven children, nine women and 12 men were confirmed dead yesterday. Three injured survivors were expected to join two women already medically evacuated to Perth.

Late yesterday afternoon, divers recovered the remains of at least another two people from the water.

Ms Gillard warned the death toll could rise. ''We do not know with any certainty how many people there were on the boat,'' she said. ''So we have got to prepare ourselves for the likelihood that more bodies will be found.''

The Greens, refugee advocates and lawyers all have called for an independent inquiry.

Refugee Council of Australia chief executive Paul Power said it was disappointing that the opposition had turned down an offer to join a joint committee on the tragedy. ''We desperately want to see an end to the political division."

David Manne of the Refugee Legal Centre called for a ''a full independent inquiry with the appropriate powers to examine all of the evidence so we can work out how to avoid it happening in the future''.

Meanwhile, another suspected boat of asylum seekers was intercepted near Ashmore Island yesterday afternoon. There were believed to be 54 passengers and two crew on board.

The group will be transferred to Christmas Island where they will undergo security, identity and health checks and their reasons for travel will be established.



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Tags: australia, national tragedies, navy

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