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Refugee killed as boat capsizes

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A boat carrying asylum seekers 120 miles north of Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean has capsized (AP/Australian Maritime Safety Authority)

A boat carrying asylum seekers 120 miles north of Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean has capsized (AP/Australian Maritime Safety Authority)

A boat carrying asylum seekers 120 miles north of Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean has capsized (AP/Australian Maritime Safety Authority)

One body has been recovered after a crowded boat carrying asylum seekers to Australia capsized in the Indian Ocean.

Merchant ships have rescued 125 survivors in an area midway between Christmas Island and the main Indonesian island of Java, and an air and sea search is ongoing for as many as 20 people who could still be missing, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said.

It comes less than a week after more than 90 people drowned on a similar journey.

The authority said up to 150 men, women and children may have been on the wooden Indonesian fishing boat.

Australian prime minister Julian Gillard told parliament that two Australian war ships and an air force aircraft that can drop liferafts on the sea joined the search.

The area is 120 miles north of Australia's Christmas Island and 115 miles south of Java. The boat capsized in Indonesia's search and rescue zone but Australian authorities had raised the alarm, Australian Maritime Safety Authority spokeswoman Jo Meehan said.

Last Thursday, 110 people were rescued when a boat carrying more than 200 mostly Afghan asylum seekers capsized 15 miles from the latest tragedy. Only 17 bodies were recovered.

The survivors' refugee applications are being assessed at Christmas Island, where Australia runs an immigration detention centre.

Australia is a common destination for boats carrying asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Iraq, Sri Lanka and other poor or war-torn countries.

Last week's disaster rekindled debate in parliament on how Australia should deter asylum seekers from risking the hazardous sea journey. The government wants to send new boat arrivals to Malaysia in exchange for accepting UN-recognised refugees living there. The opposition will not support the legislation because Malaysia has not signed the Refugee Convention.

PA