At least 27 asylum seekers have been killed after their boat crashed into rocks off Australia’s coast, say customs officials.
The wooden vessel hit rocks on Christmas Island, an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean where refugee applicants are housed in a detention centre.
Witnesses described seeing dead bodies – including babies and children – floating in the churning whitewater near cliffs.
Rescue efforts are underway but officials say a “large number” of asylum seekers are dead.
“There are people in the water crying out for help. There’s a tragedy unfolding here,” said Christmas Island Shire president Gordon Thomson.
The boat is believed to have been carrying up to 70 passengers – many of Iraqi origin – and local media reports say 41 people have been rescued, with another 30 still missing.
Residents on the island had rushed to the boat to help after the incident and a witness said the scene was chaotic.
Christmas Island resident Phillip Stewart told Australia’s Sky News he saw several people in the water.
“The tragedy continued for some time and we witnessed people actually drowning,” he said.
“They were not able to get off the boat when it hit against the rocks.”
Locals threw ropes and life jackets over the cliffs, but many passengers were unable to swim even a few metres to grab them.
Simon Prince, who lives nearby and was first woken by the passengers’ screams, said the accident was caused by the failure of the vessel’s engine.
“They were washing backward and forward very close to the cliffs here, which are jagged, limestone cliffs, very nasty,” he said.
He said the boat hit the rocks after an hour with a “sickening crack”.
“It was just horrible. People getting crushed. Bodies, dead children, the whole thing was pretty awful.”
Weather conditions in the area have been particularly bad for the past three days, causing dangerous conditions along the coast.
The swell has also hampered Navy rescue efforts.
Australia is a prime destination for people from poor, often war-ravaged countries who want to start a new life.
In recent years, many have come from Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq.
Asylum seekers who illegally enter Australian waters by boat are sent to the island’s detention centre, or detention centres on the Australian mainland while their refugee claims are reviewed.