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Asylum Seekers Die as Boat Sinks off Australia

Updated at 11:59 p.m. ET

A wooden boat packed with dozens of asylum seekers smashed apart on cliff-side rocks in heavy seas off an Australian island Wednesday, sending some to their deaths in churning whitewater as horrified islanders watched from above.

Rescue efforts were under way and officials said it was not immediately clear how many people were dead. The boat crashed below a cliff on Christmas Island, an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean where refugee hopefuls are housed in a detention center.

"A people smuggler's boat has crashed into the rocks," Acting Prime Minister Wayne Swan said. "A number of people have been rescued but sadly, some bodies have been retrieved."

Swan said he did not know how many people were on board the boat, or where the asylum seekers were from. Australia is a prime destination for people from poor, often war-ravaged countries such as Afghanistan who want to start a new life.

A series of photographs taken at the scene and published on The West Australian newspaper's website show the wooden boat crashing into the rocks and breaking apart. The images also show people floating in the water amid the wreckage. It is unclear if they are alive or dead. The boat was about 20 to 30 feet long, with a cabin covered by a sheet of fabric or plastic.

Simon Prince, who lives next to the cliff where the boat crashed, told The Associated Press he was woken early Wednesday by what he thought were cheers. He walked outside to the cliff and instead heard cries for help from a boat just offshore.

"The engine had failed," Prince told the AP. "They were washing backward and forward very close to the cliffs here, which are jagged limestone cliffs, very nasty."

Prince called the police and soon there were dozens of locals standing on the cliffs, wondering how they could help despite the storm and crashing waves.

He said the boat, carrying about 50 people, tossed for an hour before it finally hit the rocks at the base of the cliff.

"When the boat hit the cliff there was a sickening crack. All the people on board rushed to the land side, which is the worst thing they could do, but I don't think anybody could swim. I think there were about two lifeboats on board this thing," Prince said.

"It was just horrible. People getting crushed. Bodies, dead children, the whole thing was pretty awful."

Prince, who owns a dive shop, and other neighbors began hurling lifejackets into the water, 50 or 60 of them. But many just floated away. Some would-be rescuers were injured on the rocks while trying to get the lifejackets to those in the water, and needed stitches later, he said.

Resident Michael Foster watched in horror as women and children screamed out for help in the churning seas below.

"They had lifejackets on them, but the water was just pushing them up ... and throwing them towards the rocks," Foster told the AP. "It was a pretty horrible situation."

Foster, an electrician, saw around 50 people struggling against the 10 foot waves when he first arrived at the cliff, but the currents soon began to sweep them away. He counted around 10 bodies that appeared to be dead. In the churning whitewater, it was impossible to tell whether they were women or men, he said.

The Australian Federal Police would say only that they were responding to a "maritime incident" involving a suspected illegal vessel on the island. The department declined to comment further.

"There is an ongoing situation which involves a rescue of people off Christmas Island. Our paramount priority is the safety of all involved," the Customs and Border Protection Service said in a statement. Officials with the agency declined to elaborate.

The Western Australia state police also declined to comment.

"There's a very, very bad tragedy unfolding," Christmas Island local official Gordon Thomson told the AP, declining to say anything further.

Prince said Navy and Customs vessels were on the other side of the island helping another boat of asylum seekers in calmer seas and took awhile to respond to the calls for help.

"Eventually the Navy did come around and start picking people out of the water but it was too late for some," Prince said.

Asylum seekers who illegally enter Australian waters by boat are sent to the island's detention center, or detention centers on the Australian mainland while their refugee claims are reviewed. In recent years, many have come from Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq. Generally, they first fly to Indonesia and then continue on to Australia in cramped, barely seaworthy boats.

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