Australian PM unmoved by fresh refugee abuse claims

SYDNEY (AFP) - Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott was unmoved by new reports on Friday of asylum-seeker abuse and claims a group was turned back to Indonesia in a lifeboat, saying his harsh policies were "working".

He rebuffed suggestions the military should release official video of their "Operation Sovereign Borders" missions after an asylum-seeker told Fairfax Media three men on his boat allegedly had their hands held against hot engine pipes by navy personnel to punish them for protesting.

Mr Abbott was peppered with questions about the government's turnback policy after reports also emerged of a lifeboat full of asylum-seekers, including young children, washing up in Indonesia after being turned away by Australia's navy near remote Christmas Island with inadequate food to last the journey.

"What I'm interested in doing is stopping the boats. That's what I'm interested in doing and that's what the Australian public elected this government to do," Mr Abbott told reporters.

"I'm pleased that we've now had 50 days without an illegal boat arriving in Australia, and the message is getting out loud and clear to the people smugglers and their would-be customers that the way is shut, you shall not pass," he added. "These policies are working. Yes, they are tough, but they are working."

There has been an ongoing war of words between the conservative government and public broadcaster ABC about allegations that asylum-seekers suffered burns during a navy turn-back operation. The ABC obtained images of the injuries, and Fairfax on Friday published a new interview with an asylum-seeker on board, Mr Yousif Ibrahim Fasher, who claimed some of the burns were deliberately inflicted during a protest against the navy limiting access to on-board toilets.

"They punished three of them, three of them, as a punishment, so they would never want to go to the toilet again," Fasher said. "They said, 'Yousif, translate for the people. Say to anyone: If you want to go to the toilet again, we will burn his hands'."

Mr Fasher said the men who suffered the burns were afraid to speak to journalists in case Australia blacklisted them from claiming asylum.

Mr Abbott declined to release operational videotape, saying: "I don't want to do anything that might complicate that task of stopping the boats, and frankly I don't want to do anything that could cast aspersions on the professionalism of our naval and customs personnel."

"They are doing a fine job often under difficult circumstances, they act in accordance with humanity... and I have seen nothing that credibly casts any doubts on that professionalism," he added.

Separately, the ABC on Friday reported that an orange lifeboat recently purchased by the Australian navy had washed up on Java's south coast and those on board had claimed they were turned back from Christmas Island.

They claimed they were fed and medically treated by the Australian navy and then turned back to Indonesia, running out of food 48 hours before landing. The youngest on board was reportedly 18 months old.