Indonesia, Australia in asylum-seeker boat stand-off

Indonesia, Australia in asylum-seeker boat stand-off
Australian customs officials and navy personnel escort asylum-seekers onto Christmas Island August 21, 2013, after they were rescued by the Australian Navy ship HMAS Parramatta from a crowded boat that had foundered at sea.

JAKARTA - Indonesia and Australia were locked in a stand-off on Friday after an Australian vessel went to the aid of an asylum-seeker boat off Indonesia's main island of Java but Jakarta said it would not accept receiving those on board.

The flare-up in tensions came with relations between the two neighbours already under pressure following reports that the Australian embassy in Jakarta carried out surveillance as part of a US-led spying network.

Lieutenant General Angus Campbell, commander of Canberra's military-led effort to stop people-smuggling boats arriving, said an Australian boat had answered a call for assistance on Thursday.

"Australia has coordinated its efforts with Indonesian authorities in relation to a vessel that first requested assistance approximately 43 nautical miles south of Java in Indonesia's search and rescue region," Campbell told reporters in Sydney.

"I am advised that all people have been accounted for and in line with standard practice I will not comment further on this or other on-water issues."

Under Australia's new conservative government, asylum-seekers arriving by unauthorised boats face the prospect of their vessels being turned back to Indonesia, from where many of them embark, if it is safe to do so.

But the policy has angered Indonesian officials, who warn it could breach their country's sovereignty and on Friday Jakarta said it would not accept those on board the boat helped by the Australians.

Agus Barnas, a senior official at the co-ordinating ministry for political, justice and security affairs, told AFP negotiations were taking place between visiting Australian Defence Minister David Johnston and his Indonesian counterpart, Purnomo Yusgiantoro.

But he added: "Indonesia rejects taking asylum seekers, that's our stance for the time being.

"We are still negotiating with Australia on this matter. While we are in negotiations, we will reject asylum seekers."

He added the asylum seekers were "outside of Indonesia's territorial sovereign" borders when they were picked up.

Djoko Suyanto, the co-ordinating minister for political, justice and security affairs was quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper as saying in the past Jakarta had taken asylum seekers when it was a "humanitarian issue".

"This time nobody was drowned," he said.

Tensions were already high between Jakarta and Canberra over the new government's asylum-seeker policy but soared in the past week over the reports about the spy scandal in the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper.

The reports prompted Indonesia to summon the Australian ambassador, while Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa has declared "enough is enough".

The asylum boat row came as Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was on the Indonesian island of Bali for an international summit.

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