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AUSTRALIA Australia responds to another boat 'in distress'

Opposition leader Abbott says he would turn them back if elected PM

AFP
July 12, 2012

Sydney: Australian authorities on Wednesday responded to a distress call from a second asylum-seeker boat in as many days as opposition leader Tony Abbott insisted he would turn them back if elected prime minister.

The boat made three distress calls about 100 nautical miles north of Australia’s remote Christmas Island territory on Tuesday night and after arriving at the scene HMAS Childers sailors boarded the vessel.

“Initial indications suggest there are 65 people on board,” the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (Amsa) said.

On Tuesday, the same ship steamed to another vessel that made an emergency call but found the boat, carrying 85 people, showing “no visible signs of distress”. HMAS Childers nevertheless took the passengers on board.

The distress calls, which appear to be a tactic aimed at getting authorities to transfer passengers to Christmas Island, are the latest in a series of incidents, with 94 people estimated to have drowned after two boats went down on the perilous sea route in recent weeks.

They came as the Sri Lankan Navy seized two fishing trawlers carrying at least 82 would-be asylum seekers heading to Australia.

Canberra is facing a steady influx of asylum-seekers arriving in Australia by boat, many of whom use Indonesia as a transit hub, boarding leaky wooden vessels there after fleeing their homes countries.

Australia wants to deter boatpeople by transferring them to Malaysia for processing, in exchange for accepting thousands of that nation’s registered refugees for resettlement.

But the minority government has been unable to pass the necessary legislation because of opposition in the Australian parliament.

Abbott, who opposes the Malaysia option, favours turning the boats back despite criticism that it would endanger the lives of Australian navy personnel.

He said Wednesday the navy had done it before and could do so again.

“I appreciate navy personnel have a difficult job to do often under highly distressing circumstances,” he said.

“But the fact is the navy has turned boats around before and it has done so with great professionalism and can do so again with the right support from government and that’s what I’d be giving them.”

Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare said Abbott was “effectively playing Russian roulette with the lives of Australian sailors”.

“He has admitted this is dangerous, the former chief of the defence force has said this is dangerous, the chief of the navy has said this is dangerous, and we’ve had members of the Australian Navy saying this is dangerous,” he said.

Both Abbott’s conservative opposition and Julia Gillard ruling Labor party have come under fire for failing to broker an asylum-seeker solution.

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