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Afghan refugees set fire to boat

AFGHAN asylum seekers being escorted to an Australian detention center doused their boat in gasoline yesterday before an explosion killed three people and left two others missing at sea, officials said.

The federal government said the exact details of the blast on the rickety wooden boat hundreds of kilometers offshore were not known yet.

"Everyone would like to know: 'Was this an accident or was it sabotage?'" Home Affairs Minister Bob Debus said.

Australia in recent months has seen an increase in illegal arrivals by sea ?? most of whom are fleeing Afghanistan and Iraq ?? stirring a debate that split the country several years ago about how leniently they should be treated.

Thirty-four people, including an unknown number of children, were being airlifted to hospitals in Australia, said Dr Andrew Robertson, health coordinator for Western Australia state.

"A number of them have very severe burns and are obviously in a critical condition," he said.

There were 49 suspected asylum seekers and crew on board the boat as well as a few Australian sailors at the time of the explosion, Australia's border protection commander Rear Admiral Allan du Toit said. Two Australians sustained minor injuries.

A search was under way for two refugees who disappeared after the blaze, officials said.

Debus said it was not clear why the refugees would set the boat alight. They may have feared they were being escorted away from Australia. "Clearly we're talking about desperate people," Western Australia state Premier Colin Barnett said yesterday.


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