Updated: 08/20/2013 20:02 | By Agence France-Presse

Asylum boat sinks off Australia amid people-smuggling talks

Five people were feared dead but scores were saved when an asylum-seeker boat foundered off Australia Tuesday, casting a shadow over international talks on people-smuggling.

Asylum boat sinks off Australia amid people-smuggling talks

Indonesia's Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa (L) welcomes his Papua New Guinean counterpart Rimbink Pato at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jakarta on August 20, 2013. Five people were feared dead but scores were saved when an asylum-seeker boat foundered off Australia Tuesday, casting a shadow over the international talks on people-smuggling.

The boatpeople issue is a battleground ahead of September 7 polls in Australia, where public anger is growing over the failure to stop an influx of thousands of asylum-seekers who board boats in Indonesia.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd unveiled a new hardline policy last month that will see boatpeople arriving in Australia sent to Papua New Guinea for processing and resettlement, and his party claims the policy is already working.

But the boats are still arriving -- and as Australian Immigration Minister Tony Burke told delegates at the Jakarta talks that Canberra was "serious" about its new policy, a boat heading for Australia was going down.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) received a request for help early in the day from the stricken vessel 120 nautical miles from the Australian territory of Christmas Island, where most asylum seekers arrive.

An alert was sent out and a navy ship and a customs and border protection aircraft responded, along with a merchant ship.

Rescuers plucked 106 people to safety from the sinking boat, averting a major catastrophe just weeks before Australians go to the polls.

But AMSA added that up to five people remained unaccounted for. "After an extensive search of the area for further survivors or bodies, none have been sighted," it said in a statement.

"It is therefore believed any people unaccounted for have gone down with part of the vessel."

There were no details of the nationalities of those missing, nor whether they were men, women or children. The search was suspended as darkness approached and the navy vessel headed for Christmas Island with the survivors.

Hundreds of asylum-seekers have drowned en route to Australia. Last month, in the most recent incident, a boat capsized off Indonesia, leaving at least 15 dead -- including six children.

The latest incident came as Burke and Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr took part in the talks aimed at finding a regional solution to the boatpeople issue.

Discussions included ministers and senior officials from major countries of origin, such as Afghanistan and Sri Lanka.

As well as the boat sinking, the talks were marred by Iran's decision to snub the conference, a major blow as it is the biggest single source of asylum-seekers heading to Australia.

After the talks, the 13 countries present said in a communique that they "recognized the need for common responses involving countries of origin, transit as well as destination".

Rudd's new boatpeople plan, the so-called Papua New Guinea Solution, is an effort to win back ground from the conservative, Tony Abbott-led opposition. The tiny pacific island of Nauru has also agreed to join the initiative.

Rudd's party claims the plan has already succeeded in slowing the flow of asylum-seeker boats -- but it has provoked howls of outrage from rights groups and cracks are already starting to appear.

In a weekend interview with Fairfax newspapers, Rudd's PNG counterpart Peter O'Neill indicated that the agreement was not open-ended -- as had previously been suggested -- and there was a limit to the number of boatpeople it could settle.

However, PNG's Foreign Minister Rimbink Pato insisted at Tuesday's conference that there was no limit. "We will take any number of refugees," he said.

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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