Australia navy rescues 18 people from sinking boat

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CANBERRA, Nov 21 (Reuters) Australia's navy has rescued 18 people from a sinking boat off the country's remote north-west coast, a military spokesman said today.

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

Three men, three women, 10 children and two crew 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.

Australian 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.

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

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 human rights groups and the United Nations.

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 the policy.

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.

REUTERS DKS BST0512

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