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90 still missing after boat capsizes off Indonesia

Ships and aircraft found more bodies but no survivors Friday while searching for scores of men still missing after a boat carrying about 200 asylum seekers to Australia capsized in heavy seas south of Indonesia.

Four Indonesian and Australian warships, four merchant ships and five Australian government aircraft were searching in 2-meter (7-foot) swells, Australian Maritime Safety Authority spokeswoman Jo Meehan said. All on board were male and about 90 were missing since Thursday's accident.

An Australian navy patrol boat and three cargo ships had rescued 109 survivors — including a 13-year-old boy — and delivered them to the Australian territory of Christmas Island 200 kilometers (120 miles) to the south, officials said.

The government lowered from 110 the number of survivors rescued, without explaining the revision. Three bodies also were recovered Thursday.

Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare said most of the men were from Afghanistan. The growing number of asylum seekers trying to reach Australia by boat often originate from it and other war-torn or impoverished nations.

Surveillance aircraft saw more bodies Friday but no survivors. "I think we need to brace ourselves for more bad news," Clare told Sky News television.

Searchers still could find more survivors but rougher seas were making the situation "increasingly grim," Clare said.

About 40 survivors were found clinging to the upturned hull, while others were gripping debris up to 6 kilometers (4 miles) from the scene, Clare said.

The boat called Australian rescuers late Tuesday to report it was in distress but did not give its location, Clare said. The crew made another call Wednesday and said the boat was 70 kilometers (44 miles) south of the main Indonesian island of Java. Australian authorities advised the crew to return to Indonesia and told Indonesian authorities of the boat's situation, he said.

But an Australian surveillance plane crew saw it Wednesday afternoon continuing south toward Christmas Island and showing "no visual signs of distress," Clare said. Authorities there began preparing to respond, he said.

On Thursday afternoon, a surveillance plane crew found the boat had capsized halfway between Christmas Island and Java, still within Indonesia's zone of search and rescue responsibility.

He said the boat had made several calls Thursday morning that "raised concerns about the safety of the vessel," but he did not have details of those calls.

Speaking of Australian rescue authorities' response, Clare said that "it looks like they took proactive steps."

"All of the advice I have is that the work between Australian agencies and Indonesian agencies was very good," he added.

People smugglers often call Australian rescue authorities once they've reached Australian waters to tell them where their human cargo can be picked up. They then disable the boats so they cannot be forced to retreat.

Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean is closer to Indonesia than to the Australian mainland and is a popular target for the overcrowded boats carrying asylum seekers from Indonesia — sometimes with deadly consequences.

Gagah Prakoso, a spokesman for Indonesia's Search and Rescue Agency, said the capsized boat was reportedly carrying 206 people.

"We have done the best we can for the rescue effort," he said Friday, adding that he did not know whether the Indonesian fishing boat had been crewed by Indonesians.

Western Australian police were being sent to Christmas Island to attempt to identify bodies.

The U.N. refugee agency said the tragedy underscored the danger of such journeys by asylum seekers and the need to find alternatives.

"It also reinforces the need for renewed international solidarity and cooperation to find protection options for people," the statement said.

In December 2010, an estimated 48 people died when an asylum seeker boat broke up against Christmas Island's rocky coast.

Last December, about 200 asylum seekers were feared drowned after their overcrowded ship sank off Indonesia's main island of Java.

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Associated Press Writer Ali Kotarumalos in Jakarta contributed to this report.