Updated: 09/29/2013 13:02 | By Agence France-Presse

Australia defends response to refugee boat sinking

Australia Sunday insisted it provided "all appropriate assistance" to an asylum-seeker boat that sank off Indonesia, killing at least 22, after survivors claimed their calls for help had gone unheeded.


Australia defends response to refugee boat sinking

A group of asylum-seeker survivors rest on the beach in Cianjur on the Indonesian island of Java on September 27, 2013, after their boat sank

The vessel, carrying an estimated 120 asylum-seekers from Lebanon, Jordan and Yemen, sank in rough seas Friday, claiming 22 lives -- including multiple children -- with dozens more passengers unaccounted for.

It is the first fatal sinking since conservative Prime Minister Tony Abbott's election win and comes ahead of his arrival in Jakarta on Monday on his first foreign trip as leader where Australia's controversial new people-smuggling policies -- including plans to turn back boats to Indonesia -- are likely to dominate talks.

Finance Minister Mathias Cormann defended the government's response to the disaster Sunday after survivors claimed they had repeatedly called Australian authorities to request assistance and were promised help that never came.

"Tragically, I mean, the events occurred in an area that was under Indonesian jurisdiction, and of course, Australia did provide all appropriate assistance," Cormann told Meet the Press.

Cormann said reports that Australian officials were first notified that the ship was in distress on Thursday morning were "incorrect", insisting the first contact was on Friday morning.

"It was a report that related to an event in the Indonesian search-and-rescue zone. And of course, all of the immediate action that was required was taken, in particular, Australian authorities immediately contacted Indonesian authorities," he said.

"There was very close cooperation, as is appropriate in those circumstances, to deal with the unfolding event as quickly as possible."

Survivors told journalists in Java that they had called the Australian embassy for 24 hours after their boat foundered and were told to send through GPS coordinates to assist rescuers.

"We did, and they told us 'OK, we know where you are. We'll come for you in two hours'," Abdullah, from Jordan, told Fairfax newspapers.

"And we wait two hours, we wait 24 hours, and we kept calling them (saying) 'We don't have food, we don't have water for three days, we have children, just rescue us'."

"And nobody come. Sixty person dead now because of Australian government."

Cormann said the full details of the sinking and Australia's response would be provided by Immigration Minister Scott Morrison on Monday during the new government's weekly briefing on its military-led operation against people-smugglers -- a practice that was condemned by refugee rights protesters rallying in Sydney on Sunday.

"The government cannot be allowed to use its media blackout to cover up the role of Australian authorities in this tragedy," said refugee rights activist Ian Rintoul, adding that Canberra "well knows that Indonesia does not have the capability to carry out significant rescues at sea".

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