Asylum-seeker boat carrying 105 sinking off Australia, rescue operation underway

SYDNEY (AFP) - A rescue operation was under way Tuesday after an asylum-seeker boat carrying 105 people began sinking north of Australia, two weeks away from an election where boatpeople are a key policy issue.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) said they received a request for assistance from someone onboard Tuesday morning and a navy ship responded.

"The vessel was 120 nautical miles north of Christmas Island with reportedly 105 people on board," an AMSA spokeswoman said, referring to the Australian territory in the Indian Ocean.
She added that an alert was issued to ships in the area.

"HMAS Parramatta arrived on scene at around 12.20 pm (10.30am Singapore time) and reported the vessel had foundered."

The spokeswoman said a rescue operation was in full swing with support from an Australian Customs Dash-8 aircraft while another navy ship and a merchant vessel were steaming to the scene.

"This is an ongoing search and rescue operation and no further information is available at this stage," she said.

Asylum-seekers are a sensitive issue in Australia as their numbers increase, with more than 18,000 arriving so far in 2013, according to official figures.

Hundreds have drowned en route, most recently last month when a boat heading for Australia capsized off Indonesia leaving at least 15 dead, including six children.

The latest disaster came as Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr and Immigration Minister Tony Burke were in Jakarta for regional talks on people-smuggling. Among others represented in the Indonesian capital are Iran, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka - the origin countries of many asylum-seekers who arrive in Australia after perilous sea journeys.

The talks follow Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's Labor party last month unveiling a tough new policy banishing boatpeople arriving in Australia to Papua New Guinea for processing and resettlement even if they are genuine refugees.

The party has claimed the hardline stance is working, citing widespread evidence from Indonesia that asylum-seekers are demanding their money back from people-smugglers.

Mr Rudd, who is trailing in the opinion polls to conservative rival Tony Abbott ahead of the September 7 election, has gambled his fortunes on the PNG circuit-breaker. While it has slowed the flow of smuggling boats, several have been intercepted in the past
few days.

Mr Abbott has pledged his own crackdown that would see all refugees put on three-year temporary visas and forced into a work-for-welfare programme without family reunion, appeal or permanent residency rights.

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