URGENT talks were under way last night between Canberra and Jakarta over responsibility for a suspected Australia-bound asylum-seeker vessel carrying 79 passengers that had issued a distress message off the Indonesian island of Sumatra. HMAS Armidale was sent to help and was last night alongside the boat — one of three new vessels found heading for Australia — said a spokesman for Home Affairs Minister Brendan O’Connor.

Last night, the question of which nation was responsible for the boat and its occupants had not been settled. Under maritime law, if the vessel was in international waters, responsibility would fall to Australia.

The boat, whose identity was not given, radioed a distress call giving its position as 548km “north-northwest” off the Australian territory of Christmas Island and 222km off Java. The distress signal was picked up by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, which sent the Armidale to intercept the boat. Asked which country was going to take responsibility for the boat and those aboard, a senior government official told The Australian last night: “They’re still trying to work that out.” None of the passengers were in danger and the vessel was regarded as seaworthy, a spokesman for Border Protection Command said last night. A photograph of the boat released last night appeared to indicate the vessel was of Indonesian origin.

Mr O’Connor last night said another boat, thought to have 39 passengers and three crew aboard, was intercepted yesterday near Ashmore Island, off Australia’s north coast, after being spotted by an RAAF aircraft.

Meanwhile a third refugee-crammed vessel was yesterday reported to be in distress 200 to 300 nautical miles from Malaysia. The Malaysian navy has taken charge of that vessel but few details have been released on its whereabouts. Unconfirmed reports say the total number of asylum-seekers on all three boats is more than 310.

It is understood the asylum-seeker boat near Malaysia is off the west coast, but few other details were given. Its last stated position could put its location either off Bangka Island on the approaches to the Sunda Strait, or west of Aceh in the Indian Ocean.

Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard told the Nine Network yesterday the location of the boats off Indonesia and Malaysia put them within the areas of those countries’ responsibility. “They are in the Indonesian search and rescue zone and in the Malaysian search and rescue zone, so our (Australian) role is to assist if our assistance is asked for or required by the Indonesian or Malaysian authorities, but they (Indonesia and Malaysia) are the ones in control of the efforts there,” Ms Gillard said.

The latest boat sightings come as Kevin Rudd seeks a new strategic compact with Indonesia to halt the flow of asylum-seekers. As reported in The Weekend Australian, the Prime Minister heads to Jakarta tomorrow for talks with his Indonesian counterpart, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, on greater Australian support for Jakarta’s long-term resettlement of asylum-seekers. The Rudd plan envisages Canberra funding the cost of Indonesian naval arrests of asylum-seekers, and cash to fund additional detention centres to be administered by the UN-backed International Organisation for Migration. Australia would boost training and intelligence sharing with Jakarta, including military and police co-operation.

The visit comes after an appeal by Mr Rudd for Indonesia to intercept a boatload of 250 Sri Lankan asylum-seekers believed to be bound for Australia. Moored at the Javanese port of Merak yesterday, the asylum-seekers abandoned their 52-hour hunger strike.

The Australian Greens say they want Mr Rudd to urge Indonesia to sign the UN Convention for Refugees, to ensure asylum-seekers who end up there receive fair treatment. Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young said Australia needed to work with its regional neighbours such as Indonesia and Malaysia to ensure fair treatment for asylum-seekers.

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