Australia turns back asylum-seeker boat: Report

SYDNEY (AFP) - Immigration Minister Scott Morrison on Tuesday refused to discuss reports that the Australian navy turned a boatload of asylum-seekers back to Indonesia, which later ran aground.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation said the vessel carrying about 47 people, mostly from Sudan and Somalia, was forced back to Indonesian waters in mid-December and later ran out of fuel.

It then ran aground on Rote Island on Dec 19 with those on board picked up by Indonesian authorities, the broadcaster said.

"For operational security reasons, the government does not disclose, confirm or otherwise comment on reports of on-water activities in relation to Operation Sovereign Borders," Mr Morrison said in a statement.

Operation Sovereign Borders is Australia's military-led programme to stop people-smugglers bringing asylum-seekers to Australia, often on dangerously overcrowded and unseaworthy fishing boats from Indonesia.

As part of the policy, Prime Minister Tony Abbott's government has promised to turn back boats when it is safe to do so, a measure which rankled Indonesia which has suggested it could violate its sovereignty.

"Australia respects Indonesia's territorial sovereignty and will continue to do so, just as Indonesia has stated it respects Australia's territorial sovereignty," Mr Morrison added.

"It is not the policy or practice of the Australian government to violate Indonesian territorial sovereignty. Any suggestion to the contrary is false."

The conservative government has adopted a policy of only commenting on asylum-seekers issues once a week or when a serious incident occurs, a measure critics have slammed as keeping the public in the dark.

"We've got a situation where a boat has been towed back by Australian officers, the boat has run aground," Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young told ABC radio.

"These people could have drowned. How many other boats has this occurred to that we've never heard about?"

Hundreds of people have died in fatal sinkings in recent years, often after boarding rickety, wooden boats in Indonesia to try and make the treacherous sea crossing to Australia.

The issue of a turn back could add to tensions between Canberra and Jakarta, just weeks after a spying scandal risked the relationship between the close neighbours.