Last efforts in refugee boat search off Australia

Rescuers were making last efforts on Saturday to search for survivors from a refugee boat accident off Australia's Christmas Island as final hopes faded for some 90 people still missing.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) said overnight searches of the sea north of remote Christmas Island had failed to find any more survivors, with the last living person plucked from the water late Thursday night.

One last effort was to be made Saturday, with medical advice suggesting there was still a chance someone could be alive, but the search was likely to be scaled back later in the day.

"We are continuing to focus on recovering survivors, however we will reassess the situation this afternoon and the focus may shift to recovering non-survivors," an AMSA spokeswoman told AFP.

"We will reconvene this afternoon and, based on what this morning's search uncovers, we will make a decision then."

Rescuers managed to save 109 people from the stricken people-smuggling ship which capsized with some 200 people on board in the Indian Ocean on Thursday afternoon, two days after first issuing a distress call.

Three people have been confirmed dead but there are fears for "around 90 people (who) remain unaccounted for" according to Customs.

The boat is believed to have originated in Sri Lanka and to have been carrying mostly Afghan asylum-seekers. The survivors include a 13-year-old boy.

Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare said the critical 36-hour search window had passed and conditions had steadily deteriorated, with the situation "looking grimmer by the hour".

"There may still be people alive, but we're passed that window," Clare told ABC Television.

"I've been on the phone to Border Protection Command. Their advice is that they've now instructed the men and women out in the search and rescue area to now identify people that have been perished and retrieve those bodies."

The capsize is the latest in a series of refugee boat disasters in the Indian Ocean in recent years, as rickety, overloaded vessels packed with desperate migrants struggle to reach Australia.

It is the worst of the disasters since 2001, when a crowded people-smuggling boat called the SIEV X sank, killing 353 of the more than 400 people on board.

Some 50 refugees were killed in a horror shipwreck on the cliffs of Christmas Island during a violent storm in December 2010, including 15 children -- one a baby just three months old.

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