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Sydney - Australian authorities on Wednesday found a boat believed to be carrying up to 180 asylum seekers off Indonesia but said they were unable to board the stricken vessel because of the rough conditions.
Indonesian and Australian authorities stood ready to assist the vessel, which said it was taking on water, one day after the countries' leaders agreed to greater cooperation in search and rescue missions after recent deaths.
“The vessel appears to be upright and in a stable condition but the weather conditions were very rough,” Australia's Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare told reporters.
Australian patrol boat HMAS Wollongong found the vessel moving slowly south about 52 nautical miles south of Indonesia, Clare said, adding that earlier reports saying it was heading back towards Indonesia were incorrect.
“(The Wollongong) found that there were no visible signs of distress; but I do need to emphasise this: the weather conditions out there at the moment are very rough.”
Clare said given three-metre waves were crashing onto the boat it was not surprising that someone on board had used a satellite phone to make a distress call to Australian authorities.
The boat, thought to have between 130 and 180 people on board, is the latest in a series of asylum-seeker vessels attempting to reach Australia's remote territory of Christmas Island from Indonesia.
Some 94 people are estimated to have drowned after two boats went down on the perilous sea route in recent weeks, including one capsize midway through the journey thought to have claimed 90 lives.
The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) said the latest vessel was now slowly travelling south towards Christmas Island under its own power.
“Though there are no obvious visual signs that the vessel is in imminent danger, this will be assessed once the vessel has been boarded, when weather conditions improve,” the authority said.
Clare said it would be up to the captain of the HMAS Wollongong, once they were able to board the vessel and speak to its master, to determine whether the latest boat would be taken to Indonesia or Christmas Island.
“Obviously if the vessel in these conditions was to capsize then action would be taken immediately to rescue people,” he added.
The boat is within Indonesia's maritime search and rescue zone and Minister Clare said Australia's search and rescue authority was working with its Indonesian counterpart Basarnas on the operation.
The emergency comes one day after Prime Minister Julia Gillard hosted talks with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, agreeing to enhance cooperation on people-smuggling, particularly in search and rescue missions.
Clare said Australian and Indonesian police were also working closely to stop refugees paying people-smugglers to bring them to Australia - with one man arrested in Indonesia on Friday suspected of being a key member of the syndicate behind the boat on which 90 people died.
Australian police are interviewing another suspect on Christmas Island, Australia's main processing centre for refugees and where all boat arrivals are initially taken while their claims are assessed.
More than 5 200 asylum seekers have come to Australia so far this year on boats, many of which are fragile, wooden vessels from transit hubs in Indonesia.
Canberra's bid to deter people smugglers from making the dangerous voyage to Australia by sending asylum seekers to Malaysia for processing has so far failed to be passed by parliament, despite the recent fatalities. - Sapa-AFP