In this July 4, 2012 file photo released by the Indonesian National Search and Rescue Agency, a wooden boat which is believed to have up to 180 asylum seekers on board floats on the waters off Christmas Island, Australia.
In this July 4, 2012 file photo released by the Indonesian National Search and Rescue Agency, a wooden boat which is believed to have up to 180 asylum seekers on board floats on the waters off Christmas Island, Australia.

Australia says a boat carrying about 150 asylum seekers has capsized in the Indian Ocean, killing four passengers as Australian naval forces rescued most of the rest.

The Australian Customs and Border Protection agency said the incident happened Tuesday about 130 kilometers north of Christmas Island, an Australian territory where Canberra operates detention camps for asylum seekers.

The agency said two Australian navy ships responded to a distress call from the boat and were escorting it to Christmas Island when it tipped over in rough seas. It said naval forces had been unable to board the vessel earlier due to the bad weather.

After the boat’s occupants were thrown overboard, an Australian military aircraft dropped life rafts into the sea, helping the two navy ships rescue 144 people. Australian forces also recovered four bodies from the water before calling off the operation and transporting the survivors to Christmas Island.

There was no immediate word on the nationalities of the asylum seekers. Hundreds of others have drowned in recent years while trying to reach Australia on flimsy boats operated by people-smugglers from Indonesia.

Some of the asylum seekers have come from South Asian nations such as Afghanistan.

Australia’s conservative opposition has criticized the government’s policy of housing thousands of asylum seekers on Christmas Island. As the country prepares for a general election in the coming months, the center-right Liberal Party has called for sending asylum seeker boats back to Indonesia, a policy that Jakarta has said it would not support.

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