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Boat was scuttled by “asylum-seekers” to force a rescue

A BOAT carrying 78 asylum-seekers whose case was personally taken up by Kevin Rudd with the Indonesian President was rescued by the Australian navy only after those on board deliberately sabotaged it.

As Indonesian officials yesterday expressed irritation at the face-saving deal struck by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Kevin Rudd, Border Protection Command intercepted another boat in Australian waters carrying 24 people. The boat with 22 passengers and two crew was stopped 10 nautical miles north of Ashmore Reef. The interception was the 34th this year.

The debate over asylum-seekers continued to gather heat yesterday, with the Uniting Church writing to the Prime Minister urging Australia to lead on the issue. The intervention of the church into the already charged debate came as sources told The Australian those on board the vessel rescued off the coast of Sumatra on Sunday sabotaged the boat. Sources said the boat had been deliberately disabled, by punching or drilling holes into the hull, effectively forcing the navy to take the passengers on board.

The revelation gives credence to claims by the opposition’s immigration spokeswoman, Sharman Stone, that asylum-seekers were manipulating Australian goodwill to ensure their passage to Australia, a suggestion angrily rejected by a succession of Rudd government ministers.

On Tuesday, SBY announced Indonesia would take the asylum-seekers after Mr Rudd personally raised their plight. It followed an hour-long meeting between the two leaders at the presidential palace on Tuesday night after Dr Yudhoyono’s inauguration, and was a historic first step in a new Canberra-driven “Indonesia solution” to the boatpeople crisis. Mr Rudd confirmed Australia and Indonesia would work together to resolve the issue. “That will mean providing additional assistance to our friends in Indonesia to help with the resettlement task,” he said. “There is nothing remarkable in that.”

While Foreign Minister Stephen Smith and presidential spokesman Dino Patti Djalal talked up the resolution as a “humanitarian” one based on the poor health of a girl on board the Customs vessel the Oceanic Viking somewhere off Sumatra, there was little urgency in Jakarta or Merak yesterday about receiving the group. “The news is still extremely unclear,” a senior operations officer in the Indonesian navy’s western fleet said. “If it was Australia that helped (the asylum-seekers), Australia that answered the distress call, why should they be brought to Indonesia? It’s strange.” The navy colonel, who asked not to be identified, pointed out that his role in any operation to transport the Sri Lankans to the port at Merak would be a major one. “But so far I have been given no information from headquarters,” he said.

Immigration Minister Chris Evans said he had not been privy to discussions between Mr Rudd and SBY. “I think it’s just a sign of the broadening regional co-operation with Indonesia, Malaysia and other partners,” Senator Evans said of the deal.

But international law experts said Indonesia was obliged to allow the asylum-seekers to land anyway. International law expert Don Rothwell of the Australian National University said once it was clear that HMAS Armidale had rescued the 78 Sri Lankans from a vessel in distress in the Sunda Strait, international law permitted them to land at the nearest port.

Senator Evans was also forced to defend Mr Rudd over his use of the term “illegal” migrants in relation to asylum seekers. “The PM is a very effective communicator,” Senator Evans told the ABC. “He was very keen to send a strong message about our attitude to border security and he did that.”

Senator Evans’s remarks came in the wake of growing criticism of Mr Rudd’s rhetoric on asylum seekers, with the Australian Workers Union, the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union, and Victorian Labor MP Michael Danby rebuking the Prime Minister for his language. Yesterday, the Uniting Church president Alistair Macrae added the church’s voice to those concerned about Mr Rudd’s toughened stance. “While we acknowledge the importance of appropriate national security policies, we do not believe these should adversely affect the fulfilment of our international obligations to people in genuine need of our protection from persecution,” he said. “As a stable and wealthy country in the region, Australia has a responsibility to lead by example in providing protection to refugees.”

Senator Evans also lashed out at suggestions by Dr Stone that the rescue on Sunday represented a new tactic by people-smugglers. “I think the opposition was suggesting yesterday somehow that we shouldn’t respond to these crises,” he said. “I think that’s just reprehensible.”

Yesterday, a spokesman for Mr Rudd denied the Indonesians had been offered any inducements to take the 78 asylum-seekers, who according to Senator Evans were expected to arrive in Merak today….

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Immigrants ‘who can’t adapt should leave’

A MAN harassed by anti-war mail after his son was killed in Afghanistan says immigrants who can’t adapt to Australian life and values should live elsewhere. Private Gregory Michael Sher, 30, was killed in a rocket attack in Oruzgan Province, in southern Afghanistan, in January. He was the eighth Australian Defence Force soldier to be killed in Afghanistan since 2002, but the first to die as a result of indirect fire.

Mr Sher’s father Felix received a phone call and letters, allegedly from self-styled Muslim cleric Sheikh Haron, just before his son’s funeral. “I feel bad that you have lost your son but I don’t feel bad that a murderer of innocent civilians has lost his life,” a line in one of the letters reportedly said. Other Australian families of men killed in Afghanistan have allegedly received similar letters in the past two years.

On Tuesday Sheikh Haron was charged with seven counts of “using a postal service or similar service to menace, harass, or cause offence”. He was granted bail to appear in court on November 10.

Mr Sher says he’s now waiting for justice to take its course. “There is no point in getting angry or upset, nothing is going to be achieved by it,” he told Fairfax Radio Network today.

Asked if he had something to say to Sheikh Haron, Mr Sher called on immigrants whose values were not in line with the general community to live elsewhere. “What I would like to say (is) that when people immigrate to Australia, when they actually do so with the intention of integrating with the general community and living in peace and harmony, rather than confronting it, and causing tension and conflict, and irrespective of what one’s religious beliefs are, one can still live happily with the community but not dissolve,” he said. “If people don’t like what’s happening in Australia, live elsewhere.”

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