CANBERRA (Reuters) - An explosion aboard a boat carrying 49 asylum seekers believed to be from Afghanistan killed at least three people off the northwest coast of Australia Thursday, officials said.
The wooden fishing boat had been intercepted by Australia’s navy at Ashmore Reef, between Australia and Indonesia, and was drifting under the watch of the military when the explosion occurred.
The leader of Western Australia state said the boat may have been deliberately doused in petrol before the explosion.
“It is understood that the refugees on the boat spread petrol and that ignited causing the explosion,” Western Australia state Premier Colin Barnett told reporters in Perth.
Three people were killed, two were missing and scores of others injured in the explosion.
“I really can’t speculate on the cause. Clearly this will be subject to appropriate inquiries by the appropriate authorities,” Royal Australian Navy Rear Admiral Alan Du Toit told reporters in Canberra.
A small number of navy sailors were also on board when the explosion happened, Du Toit said, along with crew, believed to be Indonesian fishermen. Four navy sailors were among 51 people injured by the blast.
Thirteen boats carrying asylum-seekers have been discovered in Australian waters since the center-left government softened Canberra’s treatment of asylum-seekers last July.
Around 379 people have been detained on Christmas Island, between Australian and Indonesia, since September last year, mostly from Afghanistan, Iraq and Sri Lanka. (Editing by Michael Perry and Jeremy Laurence)