An Australian patrol boat was alongside yet another boatload of asylum seekers in distress late yesterday, with a merchant vessel standing by and another navy ship on the way.
Rolling in 3m swells and 30-knot winds, conditions were too dangerous to attempt a boarding and the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said HMAS Wollongong was "monitoring the situation".
Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare said the boat appeared to be still heading slowly towards Christmas Island, and Wollongong reported that there "were no visible signs of distress" despite emergency calls.
"But I do need to emphasise this: the weather conditions out there at the moment are very rough," he said.
Clare said the boat would be boarded if the weather improved.
In the past two weeks the dangerous Indian Ocean crossing has claimed up to 100 lives. The latest boat to run into trouble radioed for help as Australia and Indonesia prepared to beef up co-operation on people smuggling.
Indonesian police have arrested a key member of what they claim to be a large people smuggling syndicate stretching from Pakistan to the archipelago, and Australian Federal Police are investigating reports that another smuggler was among survivors taken to Christmas Island after the tragedy that took 90 lives two weeks ago.
The two men are alleged to have helped organise the boatload of about 200 people that capsized near Christmas Island.
Another boat foundered last week, killing four of its 134 passengers and crew.
News Ltd has quoted military sources who claim that at least one of the boats was deliberately capsized by smugglers to ensure the passengers would be taken to Christmas Island.
The sources said neither vessel was in rough seas when they foundered.
Authorities were alerted to the new drama unfolding in the Indian Ocean when panicked passengers called rescue agencies at about 4.30am Australian eastern time yesterday, saying their boat was in danger of sinking.
Details remained sketchy last night but between 130 and 180 people were believed to be aboard and the Indonesian rescue authority Basarnas issued a general alert to merchant ships in the area.
HMAS Wollongong found the boat hours later about 50 nautical miles south of Indonesia and the survey ship HMAS Leeuwin was expected to join the patrol boat and the merchant vessel late yesterday.
On Tuesday Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono agreed to increase co-operation to clamp down on people smugglers and slow the number of boats trying to reach Australia.
The two countries' intelligence, police and rescue agencies already work closely together, with about 300 boats in the past three years prevented from leaving Indonesia.
Australian Federal Police spend about A$17 million a year ($20.7 million) trying to block the boats, arresting almost 500 crew and 15 alleged organisers in the past four years.
In the past year Indonesian police have arrested 24 of their nationals and three foreigners for alleged involvement in people-smuggling rackets, and are now pursuing people believed to belong to the syndicate responsible for the tragedy two weeks ago.
Australia has spent about A$40 million to boost Indonesian efforts against people smuggling, including three ships and the construction of 12 police stations along the archipelago.
But Clare said yesterday that more was needed.
Indonesian search and rescue authorities had less access than Australian counterparts to the position of merchant vessels able to help in emergencies, and were less able to communicate with merchantmen during life-at-sea incidents.
The two countries are planning an exchange programme for search and rescue specialists, and senior officials will meet in the next two weeks.By Greg Ansley Email Greg