20 dead, many missing, as asylum-seeker boat sinks off Indonesia

20 dead, many missing, as asylum-seeker boat sinks off Indonesia
Photo illustration of an asylum-seeker boat.

JAKARTA - At least 20 people, mostly children, drowned and scores are missing after an Australia-bound boat carrying Middle Eastern asylum-seekers sank off Indonesia, police said Friday.

Twenty-five people were plucked to safety but about 75 were unaccounted for after the boat carrying people from Lebanon, Jordan and Yemen went down off the main Indonesian island of Java, police said.

It came just days before new Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott visits Indonesia for talks likely to focus on his tough policies aimed at stemming the flow of asylum-seekers.

Warsono, a police official in Cianjur district on Java, said the bodies were discovered floating in an estuary on Friday morning.

"Local people found 20 dead bodies floating in the water, most of them are children," he said. "The number of deaths may increase."

"Local people said their boat had broken into several pieces," said the official, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, although he did not know when the accident happened.

A spokesman for the Indonesian search and rescue agency said that four of its boats, along with fishing boats, had earlier been searching for the missing.

The search had been called off when it got dark and would resume again on Saturday, he said.

Warsono said that the boat was believed to have been carrying 120 people when it went down and had been heading for the Australian territory of Christmas Island.

They had departed from the fishing town of Pelabuhan Ratu, in the district of Sukabumi, on the south coast of western Java, he said.

Hundreds of asylum-seekers from around the world have died in recent years trying to make the treacherous sea crossing from Indonesia to Australia on rickety, wooden boats.

They normally pay people-smugglers huge sums to make the crossings, and almost always head for Christmas Island, which is far closer to Indonesia than it is to the Australian mainland.

Boatpeople were a key battleground in the Australian elections earlier this month due to growing public anger as thousands continue to arrive after making the hazardous sea crossing from Indonesia.

Abbott will begin a two-day visit to Indonesia on Monday, with talks expected to focus on his tough boatpeople policies, which have caused anger in Indonesia.

He has ordered a military-led border protection plan to deter boatpeople which will see vessels turned back when it is safe to do so.

His plans also include buying up fishing boats to keep them out the hands of people-smugglers, embedding Australian police in Indonesian villages and paying locals for intelligence.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa has reacted angrily to the plan, telling his Australian counterpart Julie Bishop on the sidelines of a UN meeting this week that Jakarta "cannot accept any Australian policy that would, in nature, violate sovereignty".

But on Friday Abbott described asylum-seekers arriving by boat from Indonesia as a "passing irritant" to the countries' relationship and denied his plans would jeopardise relations with Australia's northern neighbour.

Though they arrive by boat in relatively small numbers by global standards - some 13,000 in the first six months of this year - asylum-seekers are a heated political issue in Australia, and one of Abbott's main campaign mantras was "Stop the Boats".

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