|The boat crashed near Christmas Island where the Australian refugee detention centre is located [AFP]
At least 27 people have been killed after a boat carrying asylum seekers crashed into rocks at Christmas Island, officials said.
The Australian Customs and Border Protection Service said in a statement on Wednesday that the bodies of the victims, including women and children, had been recovered from the water. Forty-one survivors were plucked from the seas, and one person made it to shore.
At least 70 asylum seekers were said to have been on board the vessel when it ran into trouble off Christmas Island, an Australian territory where a refugee detention centre is located.
According to a spokeswoman from the Australian Flying Doctors service, which has sent teams of doctors to the island, at least 30 people were injured, three critically.
Officials told the Reuters news agency that they believed most passengers were of Middle Eastern origin.
Television footage showed the boat rammed bow first onto the rocks, splintering and sinking, and its passengers were thrown by waves against sharp rocks.
The boat was about six to nine metres long, with a cabin covered by a sheet of fabric or plastic.
Simon Prince, a local resident who lives next to the cliff where the boat crashed, told The Associated Press he was woken early on Wednesday by what he thought were cheers.
He walked outside to the cliff and instead heard cries for help from a boat just offshore.
"The engine had failed," he said.
"They were washing backward and forward very close to the cliffs here, which are jagged limestone cliffs, very nasty.''
"When the boat hit the cliff there was a sickening crack. All the people on board rushed to the land side, which is the worst thing they could do, but I don't think anybody could swim. I think there were about two lifeboats on board this thing,'' Prince said.
Christmas Island, located south of Indonesia, is a regular destination for boats carrying asylum seekers and is home to Australia's main offshore immigration detention centre.
"We are today expressing our deep shock and sorrow at the tragic loss of lives after the sinking of a vessel presumed to be carrying asylum-seekers off Christmas Island," Melissa Fleming, a spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said.
"We believe that far too many people are tragically losing their lives as they take desperate measures to escape conflict, persecution and poverty."
In recent years, many asylum seekers have come from Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq. Generally, they first fly to Indonesia and then continue on to Australia in cramped, barely seaworthy boats.
The Australian government announced that Julia Gillard, the prime minister, will return from leave to be briefed on the situation.