Australian officials say two women have drowned after leaping from a boat filled with asylum-seekers when those on board deliberately set fire to the vessel in efforts to prevent authorities from turning them away.
Navy officials say nearly 160 would-be refugees were rescued as the vessel burned after an explosion. But efforts to revive two women failed. The officials say a boarding party was not able to douse the flames.
The incident occurred Thursday off the northwest coast of Australia as the Indonesia-flagged boat ignored warnings from patrol boats not to enter Australian waters. The nationalities of those on board has not been determined.
Last month, an overloaded Indonesian boat heading to Australia sank in the Java Sea, killing 350 asylum-seekers. Thousands of people from the Middle East and Asia have traveled through Indonesia in recent months in efforts to reach Australia. Most of the ships filled human cargo are operated by smugglers in Indonesia.
The issue of illegal immigration has dominated the campaign ahead of national elections in Australia Saturday. Australian Prime Minister John Howard, seeking reelection in the tight race, continues to stand firm on refusing to allow asylum-seekers into the country.
Australia sends would-be refugees to the Pacific island of Nauru and to Papua New Guinea where international immigration officials process claims for asylum.