Australia turns boat carrying asylum-seekers back to Indonesia

JAKARTA/SYDNEY - Australia last month turned a boat carrying asylum-seekers back to Indonesia, the first time Prime Minister Tony Abbott's government has implemented a new immigration policy and further straining ties between the neighbours.

The 47 asylum-seekers were found on Indonesia's southern-most point, Rote Island in East Nusa Tenggara province, on Dec. 19 where their boat had run aground after being intercepted and turned back by the Australian navy, Indonesia's Antara news agency quoted police as saying.

An Australian government source who asked not to be identified confirmed the incident took place in December but declined to give details.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa addressed the issue on Tuesday. "I will not comment on a specific incident or on an operational matter," Natalegawa told reporters in Jakarta.

"But on the policy itself, let me once again put on record that Indonesia rejects Australia's policy to turn back the boats because such a policy is not actually conducive to a comprehensive solution."

Bilateral relations have been prickly since Abbott took office last September promising to have Australia's navy turn asylum-seekers away at sea and break the business of people traffickers operating from Indonesian ports.

Ties hit a 13-year low late last year following media reports that Australia had tapped the phones of top Indonesians including President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his wife.

The reports, based on documents leaked by former US National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, brought cooperation over people-smuggling to a halt as Indonesia suspended joint naval patrols and intelligence-sharing.

The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper, citing anonymous sources in the Australian military, said the incident occurred last week and a navy frigate was involved in the tow back.

A spokesman for the Australian military declined to comment and referred requests for information to the Customs and Border Protection Service.

Asylum seekers hoping to reach Australia often transit through Indonesia.

The Jakarta Post newspaper said among those on the boat that was tuned back were 28 Somalis, three Egyptians, nine Indonesians and two Eritreans.