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Australia defends response as refugee sinking toll hits 28


Protesters carry placards at a 'Welcome Refugees' rally in Sydney. photo - Reuters

Sydney: Australia on Sunday insisted it provided "all appropriate assistance" to an asylum-seeker boat that sank off Indonesia, as the toll mounted to 28 and survivors claimed their calls for help had gone unheeded.

The vessel, packed with asylum-seekers from Lebanon, Jordan and Yemen, sank in rough seas on Friday, with estimates of between 80 and 120 people on board and about 25 rescues.

Indonesian search teams recovered seven more bodies in a sweep of the coast on Sunday — six adults and a boy — taking the official death toll to 28, with dozens more unaccounted for and steep waves of four to six metres (13 to 20 feet) hampering operations.

It is the first fatal sinking since conservative Prime Minister Tony Abbott's election win and comes ahead of his arrival in Jakarta on Monday on his first foreign trip as leader where Australia's controversial new people-smuggling policies — including plans to turn back boats to Indonesia — are likely to dominate talks.

Finance Minister Mathias Cormann defended the government's response to the disaster on Sunday after survivors claimed they had repeatedly called Australian authorities to request assistance and were promised help that never came.

"Tragically, I mean, the events occurred in an area that was under Indonesian jurisdiction, and of course, Australia did provide all appropriate assistance," Cormann told Meet the Press.

Cormann said reports that Australian officials were first notified that the ship was in distress on Thursday morning were "incorrect", insisting the first contact was on Friday morning.

"It was a report that related to an event in the Indonesian search-and-rescue zone. And of course, all of the immediate action that was required was taken, in particular, Australian authorities immediately contacted Indonesian authorities," he said.

"There was very close cooperation, as is appropriate in those circumstances, to deal with the unfolding event as quickly as possible."

Survivors told journalists in Java that they had called the Australian embassy for 24 hours after their boat foundered and were told to send through GPS coordinates to assist rescuers.

"We did, and they told us 'OK, we know where you are. We'll come for you in two hours'," Abdullah, from Jordan, told Fairfax newspapers.

"And we wait two hours, we wait 24 hours, and we kept calling them (saying) 'We don't have food, we don't have water for three days, we have children, just rescue us'."

"And nobody come. Sixty person dead now because of Australian government."

Cormann said the full details of the sinking and Australia's response would be provided by Immigration Minister Scott Morrison Monday during the new government's weekly briefing on its military-led operation against people-smugglers — a practice that was condemned by refugee rights protesters rallying in Sydney on Sunday.

"The government cannot be allowed to use its media blackout to cover up the role of Australian authorities in this tragedy," said refugee rights activist Ian Rintoul, adding that Canberra "well knows that Indonesia does not have the capability to carry out significant rescues at sea."

Abbott's "Stop the Boats" plan, which also involves buying up rickety fishing vessels to keep them from the hands of people-smugglers and Australian police running intelligence operations in Indonesian villages, has rankled Jakarta.

Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa warned his Australian counterpart Julie Bishop that Indonesia "cannot accept any Australian policy that would, in nature, violate (our) sovereignty".

Human Rights Watch urged Abbott to abandon his towback plan.

"If Australia really wants to address the problem, then it should help Indonesia develop its capacity to assess asylum claims and process refugees," said Elaine Pearson, Australia director at HRW.

"That's a better policy than schemes such as paying bounties and buying boats to deter sea travel." 

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