27 asylum seekers killed in a boat smash off Australia

Residents of the Christmas Island watched in horror from the cliffs above as the boat carrying 80 people slammed on the rocks, broke apart and threw screaming men, women and children into the giant waves that pounded them against the rocks.

"The Government's focus and absolute priority now is on rescue, recovery and treatment of those injured," Prime Minister Julia Gillard said.

Bodies of 27 asylum seekers were recovered by the Australian authorities and the casualties figure could mount, doctors on the island feared.

The boat hit the rocks near Flying Fish Cove about 6 am local time, according to media reports. Forty one people have been rescued from the water and another person made it to the shore but initial reports are that 27 bodies have also been recovered, AAP quoted Australian Customs and Border Protection as saying.

Doctors have warned there could be as many as 50 deaths. The search and rescue operation was on, suggesting the number of people aboard the boat may be higher than earlier estimates.

"The rescue is being conducted in extremely difficult and dangerous conditions. The search and rescue situation is ongoing. The safety of all involved in this situation is the immediate priority," Customs authorities said in a statement.

"We will continue the search until last light and review the situation and determine what further actions might need to be taken before first light tomorrow," the statement read.

In a statement, Customs said ongoing investigations would be conducted by the Australian Federal Police and the Western Australia Police, who will prepare a report later.

"Australian government agencies including the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service and Australian Federal Police continue to coordinate a search and rescue operation," it said.

"Border Protection Command earlier deployed two assets - HMAS Pirie and ACV Triton - to render immediate assistance and conduct the rescue," Custom authorities said in a statement.

"Ongoing investigations will be a matter for the Australian Federal Police and the West Australian Police, who will prepare a report for the West Australian coroner."

The passengers in the vessel were  believed to be from Iran and Iraq. Stephen Langford from the Royal Flying Doctors Service (RFDS) said three survivors have serious injuries, while about 30 others have moderate injuries.

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