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Indonesia finds boatpeople 'turned back' by Australia

06 May 2014, 09:56

Jakarta - The Indonesian navy has found 19 boatpeople who say they were turned around trying to reach Australia in the latest tow-back of an asylum-seeker vessel under Canberra's hard-line policies.

The news came just days after Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott abruptly cancelled a visit to Indonesia that had been viewed as a bid to thaw ties damaged by Canberra's border protection policies and a row over spying.

Reports at the time said he axed the trip to the resort island of Bali, where he had been due to meet Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, over fears an ongoing turn-back operation could inflame tensions.

The Indonesian navy said that it had found a boat with would-be refugees stranded on Lay Island in East Nusa Tenggara province, in eastern Indonesia, early on Sunday.

All the passengers were male, with 15 from India, two from Nepal and two from Albania, said a statement from the navy released late on Monday.

‘Operation Sovereign Borders’

The navy said that based on testimony from the crew, the boat started sailing from central Sulawesi Island on 26 April and managed to enter Australian territorial waters on Thursday.

"At midnight [on Thursday], the boat was checked by two Australian warships... the boat was later escorted towards Indonesian waters," the navy said.

Abbott's office has declined to go into the reasons for putting off the visit to Indonesia.

It would have been his first since damaging revelations in November that Australian spies attempted in 2009 to tap the phone of Yudhoyono, his wife and inner circle.

Jakarta reacted furiously to the news, recalling its ambassador and halting co-operation in key areas including defence and people-smuggling.

Tensions were further inflamed by Canberra's military-led crackdown on asylum-seekers making their way to Australia by boat from Indonesia.

The crackdown, named "Operation Sovereign Borders", involves Australian vessels turning back asylum-seeker boats to Indonesia when it is safe to do so.

There have also been reports that Canberra has purchased orange lifeboats to send back asylum-seekers if their own vessels are deemed unseaworthy.

In February two boatloads of asylum-seekers washed up in southern Indonesia in orange lifeboats, saying they had been transferred to the vessels by Australian authorities before being turned around.



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