SYDNEY (AP) — Australian rescuers were trying to help a migrant-filled boat in bad weather and rough seas off Indonesia on Wednesday, a day after the countries agreed to strengthen maritime ties to combat people smuggling.
The wooden boat, with 164 people on board, issued a distress call Wednesday morning and said it was taking on water, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said. Its initial location was 50 miles (80 kilometers) southwest of Panaitan, a small island off the western end of the main Java island, but by afternoon, it had drifted within 180 miles (290 kilometers) of Christmas Island, Indonesian officials said.
The territory is nearer to Indonesia than to the Australian mainland and is a popular destination for asylum seekers. Australia holds migrants in a detention center there while their asylum claims are heard.
Rescuers on the Australian naval ship HMAS Leeuwin were transferring passengers from the boat, but the process was expected to take several hours because of poor weather, the maritime authority said. The naval ship will then take the migrants to Christmas Island.
The precise problem with the boat was unclear, though there were enough concerns about its seaworthiness to warrant the transfer of passengers to the naval ship, the maritime authority said.
An Indonesian plane and navy ship were returning home from the scene as the boat moved closer to Christmas Island, said Gagah Prakoso, a spokesman for its National Search and Rescue Agency.
"(Rescuers) found that there were no visible signs of distress, but I do need to emphasize this — the weather conditions out there at the moment are very rough," Australian Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare told reporters.
Australia's debate over how to cope with the increasing flow of asylum seekers has intensified since two boats carrying Australia-bound migrants capsized in the last two weeks. More than 90 people are believed to have died when the boats sank in the Indian Ocean.
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono discussed how to handle the politically charged problem, along with economic and trade issues, at a meeting in the northern town of Darwin on Tuesday.
Gillard said Australia would work with Indonesia's maritime search and rescue agency to help strengthen its communication abilities with vessels during sea disasters and would look into an exchange program of search and rescue specialists.
Australia is a common destination for boats carrying asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Iraq, Sri Lanka and other poor or war-ravaged countries. Many travel first to Indonesia before aiming for Australian territory in rickety, crowded fishing boats.
Associated Press writer Niniek Karmini in Jakarta, Indonesia, contributed to this report.