JAKARTA - Australia's new Prime Minister Tony Abbott began a visit to Indonesia Monday for talks on his tough refugee policies that have sparked anger in Jakarta, as his government faced criticism over a boat sinking that left dozens dead or missing.
Abbott laid a wreath at Kalibata Heroes Cemetery in south Jakarta, where many who died fighting in the Indonesian war of independence against colonialists are buried, and was due to hold talks with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono later.
His choice of Indonesia as his first overseas trip as premier is in line with a pledge to bolster ties with Asia but it comes amid tensions after his hardline boatpeople policies were criticised by officials in Jakarta.
In the campaign for September's elections, he pushed a "stop the boats" policy and has put into place a military-led operation known as Sovereign Borders, which involves turning boats around when it is safe to do so.
As he set off for Jakarta from Australia on Monday, Abbott sought to shift the focus of the visit away from asylum seekers.
"We will be covering a range of matters because this is an important relationship and it's important to get it right at the start of this new government," he said.
He is hoping to boost trade with Southeast Asia's biggest economy, and is accompanied by Trade Minister Andrew Robb and 20 business leaders.
But the asylum-seeker issue remained in sharp focus as he headed to Jakarta, with Indonesian officials reporting that the death toll from the sinking of an Australia-bound refugee boat on Friday had risen to 36.
Warsono, police chief in the area of Java island near where the boat went down, who goes by one name, told AFP that search teams had found another 15 bodies washed up along the coast in the past two days.