Asylum brawl flares as another boat gets into trouble

Peter Alford
November 14, 2013 7:38AM

INDONESIA'S search and rescue agency has claimed the Australian navy turned back an asylum-seeker boat 50km closer to the Java coast, a claim denied by Immigration Minister Scott Morrison.

As the Basarnas allegation threatened to escalate the bilateral row over Indonesia's refusal to take back 60 asylum seekers rescued last week in its search-and-rescue zone, another emergency flared yesterday when a Christmas Island-bound boat carrying 50 passengers struck trouble near the western Java coast.

After Australian authorities alerted Basarnas about 11.45am (Jakarta time), fishermen reportedly rescued five children from the boat, off Rangkasbitung district, Banten.

The boat suffered engine failure about three miles (five kilometres) off Manuk beach in Banten province in the morning, Indonesia's search and rescue agency said.

Nine people, including five children, were rescued initially with the help of local fishermen, agency spokesman Mochamad Hernanto told AFP.

The remaining 39, understood to be Jordanian and Sudanese, on the stricken vessel at first refused to be picked up by Indonesian rescuers and returned to Java.

But the boat was towed closer to the shore in the evening and all the asylum-seekers agreed to be brought ashore, Mr Hernanto said.

Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said earlier that reports indicated some people had entered the water. However Mr Hernanto said everyone was safe.

Mr Morrison said Australian authorities were not involved in the rescue.

A statement from Mr Morrison's office last night said the incident happened close to the coast and Indonesian authorities were co-ordinating search and rescue.

"No Australian Border Protection Command assets are involved in this rescue operation," the statement said.

Earlier yesterday, Basarnas chief of search and rescue evaluation Yopi Hariyadi claimed the fishing boat at the centre of the controversy over returning asylum-seekers to Indonesia was intercepted 107 nautical miles south of West Java last Thursday morning after the Australian Maritime Safety Authority first notified Jakarta of a distress call.

The Australian request later in the morning to transfer those on board to Indonesian custody was made from a position 57 nautical miles south of the coast, according to Basarnas.

At that point the fishing boat was reported to have a broken motor, although Indonesian search and rescue understood that at the initial contact with Ballarat the motor was working.

Mr Yopi said Indonesia believed the fishing boat in the meantime had been guided back towards Indonesia by the Australian navy vessel.

The Indonesian account would explain why Jakarta was adamant the following day it would not accept transfer of the 60 asylum seekers to Indonesian custody a decision Mr Morrison said lacked "rhyme or reason".

The Indonesian account of the initial interception by HMAS Ballarat was flatly denied by Mr Morrison, who on Saturday ended the stand-off by directing that the 60 asylum-seekers and three crew be taken to Christmas Island.

"This was a search-and-rescue operation, not a turn-back operation," Mr Morrison said last night.

"Australian agencies rendered assistance to the vessel in distress within Indonesia's search and rescue region. The initial contact was 43 nautical miles south of Java.

"The closest place of safety from the place of rescue was in Indonesia and a request was made, as previously advised, for passengers to be transferred at sea to Indonesian authorities, consistent with international search and rescue protocols."

Asked about the alleged boat turn-back last night, Tony Abbott said: "I am just not going to comment on operational matters."

The Prime Minister said it was not a question of two countries trying to prove who was tougher.

Mr Yopi said the Abbott government's tough border-protection policy was a factor in the Co-ordinating Minister for Politics Security and Law, Djoko Suyanto, last month taking over authority for search and rescue operations from Basarnas.

It was Marshall Djoko who last Friday refused the Australian request to accept the transfer of the 60 asylum seekers from the fishing boat.

Additional reporting: Joe Kelly, Telly Nathalia, AFP


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