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Australia says 163 refugees likely drowned in cyclone


SYDNEY, Australia (Reuters) -- A group of up to 163 illegal immigrants feared drowned while trying to reach Australia from Indonesia likely sailed into a massive cyclone, Australia's immigration minister said on Thursday.

Australia has said the 163 immigrants, probably from the Middle East, were thought to have died after leaving Indonesia late last week in two boats for Ashmore Islands, an outcrop of reefs about 600 km (370 miles) off Australia's remote northwest.

The two boats -- one carrying 87 people and another with 80 aboard -- left while Tropical Cyclone Sam was building in intensity off Australia's northwest near the Timor Sea. Four survivors were picked up by a Japanese tanker.

Sam was upgraded to a category five storm -- the most dangerous on a five-point scale -- with winds of up to 280 km (175 miles) an hour before it slammed ashore last Friday.

"The reports we have is that the two boats...that left Indonesia last week headed for Ashmore reef, the area where Cyclone Sam had been very active," Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock told Sky Television.

Ruddock gave no details about the Japanese tanker carrying the four survivors or where it was heading.

"I dare say they will be taken to the first port of call, where I dare say the tanker might be in a position to arrange for their being released for appropriate support and care," he said.

Ruddock said as many as 350 illegal boatpeople from the Middle East probably drowned while trying to make the same trip in April and May, 100 more than authorities first thought.

"We know that back in April and May that as many as 350 people perished at that time trying the same journey," he said.

Ruddock said he knew that the smuggler responsible for the last two boats had fled southern Indonesia when the boats failed to arrive after a trip which generally takes two or three days.

"I've heard that the particular smuggler that was involved in putting these ventures together left Indonesia in fear of reprisals from others," he said.

Human rights groups and independent MPs said on Thursday Australia should have done more to search for the immigrants.

Greens Senator Bob Brown accused Ruddock and Australia's conservative government of "grim-faced indifference."

"They were coming to this country full of hope having escaped pretty desperate circumstances and we should be showing compassion," Brown told reporters.

Immigrants who come to Australia illegally by boat are routinely held in remote detention centers while their applications for refugee status are processed. Most are subsequently deported.

Australia's Customs, Coast Watch service and navy have been asked to investigate if there were more survivors but it was most likely the boats were lost in Indonesian waters, Ruddock said.

About 1,000 illegal immigrants have arrived in Australia by boat since July 1, most of them from the Middle East. More than 4,000 boat people arrived illegally in the year to June 30, 2000.

Copyright 2000 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


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