At least three people have been killed and many more injured in an explosion aboard a boat carrying suspected asylum seekers off northern Australia.
The explosion happened about 6.30am WST (0830 AEST) on Thursday as the boat was being towed to Christmas Island by the Navy.
West Australian Premier Colin Barnett said the asylum seekers had doused the vessel with petrol shortly before the deadly blast.
“It is understood that the refugees on the boat spread petrol and that ignited causing the explosion,” Mr Barnett told reporters in Perth.
He would not elaborate on the claim when questioned further.
It is believed the 49 people aboard the vessel, intercepted off the West Australian coastline near Ashmore Reef late on Wednesday, were from Afghanistan.
Hospitals prepare for emergency
Three are said to have died, another two are missing and the remaining passengers are wounded – some seriously.
Some defence personnel are reported to have received minor injuries in the explosion but were not among the dead.
One patient is being flown to Perth for burns treatment, while others will be treated in Darwin, though it could be up to six hours before they arrive there.
A Royal Darwin Hospital spokeswoman said the hospital was not yet treating any patients from the explosion.
“We have no confirmed reports of any casualties, all we know is there may be 45 or 46,” the spokeswoman said. “We are just on high alert.”
The boat sank soon after the explosion and the asylum seekers were now onboard HMAS Albany and HMAS Childers, Mr McRoberts said.
Search on for missing pair
HMAS Tobruk, which is equipped with substantial medical facilities, is also reportedly on its way to the scene.
The Royal Australian Navy is expected to continue to search for the missing until they are found or there is no prospect of finding them alive.
WA Assistant Police Commissioner John McRoberts said it was too early to tell if the explosion was deliberate or not.
“That will be the subject of the investigation during the course of the day,” he said.
The Northern Territory Police, Fire and Emergency Services have activated the Emergency Operation Centre in Darwin which includes the Royal Darwin Hospital.
Home Affairs Minister Bob Debus said the government was working to confirm all the details surrounding the incident.
“The government\’s first priority is to address the immediate situation and to ensure the safety of life at sea,” Mr Debus said in a statement.
“This is an ongoing incident and all relevant agencies are now working to ensure the safety and security of those on board.
“The government is in the process of confirming details of this incident and will release further details once they have been confirmed.”
It is the third boat of suspected asylum seekers to arrive in Australian waters in the past two weeks and the sixth this year.
Opposition immigration spokeswoman Sharman Stone says the government had created a “dangerous situation” that was always going to end in tragedy.
“You can\’t announce a soft policy and then expect people not to loose their lives through people smuggling efforts,” Dr Stone told Sky News.
Spike in illegal boat arrivals
“We (Australia) were literally inviting a new surge to occur, that\’s what we\’ve seen.
“Perhaps we are going to see more of these tragedies in the coming weeks and months.”
The federal government says its policies have not led to the spike in illegal boat arrivals.
It argues that “push-factors” from countries including Afghanistan and Iraq are to blame.
Refugee advocate Ngareta Rossell agreed with the government.
“The push factor is so intense at the moment that of course people will be looking to get out of those countries,” she told Sky News.
Ashmore Reef, where the asylum seekers were detected, is 610km north of Broome and 645km west of Darwin.