Australia navy rescues 16 people from sinking boat

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CANBERRA, Nov 21 (Reuters) Australia's navy has rescued 16 people, including 10 children, from a sinking boat off the country's northern coast, sparking criticism of tough immigration laws just days from national elections.

The people, who have not yet been identified, were rescued yesteray by a patrol boat and landing craft after their 10-metre wooden boat's engine failed and it began sinking.

They were forced to swim from the boat after it foundered near an offshore oil facility 650 km west of Darwin, but were taken safely on board the two navy vessels.

''Our navy people did an assessment and noted that the boat was overcrowded and unstable with an unserviceable engine. It had limited provisions on board and was taking on water,'' military spokesman Brigadier Andrew Nikolic said.

Authorities had earlier put the number rescued at 18.

Australia's conservative government, which faces an election in three days with polls pointing to an opposition Labor victory, maintains a hardline policy against illegal arrivals.

Immigration authorities were trying to establish the identity of the people on board, where the boat came from, and whether they were trying to make it illegally to Australia.

Asylum seekers intercepted at sea are taken to detention camps on small Pacific Island nations including Nauru and Papua New Guinea for refugee processing in a policy strongly criticised by the United Nations and human rights groups. The Australian government pays the Pacific Island states to take the asylum seekers.

The minority Australian Greens party, targeting control of the upper house Senate in the November election, said the government's immigration laws had prevented an earlier rescue by a civilian oil and gas ship because of fears it could be illegal.

The Australian Democrats, backed by refugee groups, also called for the scrapping of the so-called ''Pacific Solution'' -- a legal mechanism to prevent asylum seekers from landing on the Australian mainland.

''We must have an end to the uncertainty and inhumane treatment of people who are already traumatised,'' Senator Andrew Bartlett said.

Labor's Kevin Rudd has pledged to shut down the Nauru detention camp if he defeats Prime Minister John Howard's government on November 24.

An Indonesian boat sank in international waters during the 2001 election campaign, killing 353 people, mostly women and children, and sparking an intense controversy about immigration policy and asylum detention.

REUTERS SG VC1012

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