Australia PM in Indonesia for boat-people talks

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AUSTRALIA20130706JAKARTA: Newly reinstated Prime Minister Kevin Rudd held talks on asylum-seekers with Indonesia’s president on Friday, with thousands each year defying deadly perils to try to reach Australia by sea.

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As the leaders met, the urgency of stemming the tide of boats setting sail for Australia was un-derlined when a people-smuggling vessel carrying about 80 asylum-seekers was reported to be in trouble south of Indonesia.

Rudd, on his first foreign trip since ousting Australia’s first female premier Julia Gillard in a dramatic coup last week, is facing calls to take action on the asylum-seeker boats, which will be a key issue in upcoming elections.

Despite Canberra’s tough new policies banishing asylum-seekers to remote Pacific islands for processing, thousands of would-be refugees continue to attempt the sea crossing to Australia, often from transit hubs in Indonesia.

Many have died trying to make the hazardous journey in crammed, rickety boats, normally after paying huge fees to people-smugglers.

Rudd has already drawn Indonesia into the domestic debate, pouring scorn on conservative opposition leader Tony Abbott and his plan to “turn back” the boats, saying this risks a diplomatic flare-up with Jakarta.

In his previous stint as prime minister up to 2010, Rudd relaxed tough refugee controls. He is now under pressure to take a hard line on the campaign hustings.

As he met with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono at the presidential palace in Bogor, outside the capital Jakarta, Australian officials said that a people-smuggling boat was in distress and reportedly taking on water.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) said two merchant vessels and a navy ship were steaming towards the scene, 42 nautical miles south of Indonesia’s main island of Java.

AMSA said someone on the ship, thought to be carrying 80 asylum-seekers, had called rescue authorities to report that they were in trouble and they had last spoken to the boat around 6 a.m., local time.

The authority was unable to say whether the boat was sinking, but said the merchant vessels could be at the site within an hour or two.

Ahead of Rudd’s visit, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said Jakarta could not solve the asylum-seeker problem alone.

“We have been consistent in saying that this problem cannot be solved by one country,” he said. “It needs a joint effort from destination and transit countries, as well as countries of origin.”

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