New Australian PM in Indonesia for asylum-seeker talks

Australia's new Prime Minister Tony Abbott begins a visit to Indonesia Monday for talks on his tough refugee policies as his government came under fire for its handling of a deadly asylum boat accident.

Australia's new Prime Minister Tony Abbott is seen at the Government House in Canberra on September 18, 2013.

He will hold talks with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in Jakarta at the start of the two-day visit, having chosen the Indonesian capital for his first overseas trip as he seeks to bolster ties with Asia.

But the visit comes amid rising tensions after his hardline policies aimed at stopping a flood of asylum-seeker boats that depart from Indonesia for Australia sparked anger in Jakarta.

Abbott, who took power several weeks ago, campaigned on a "stop the boats" policy and has put into place a military-led operation known as Sovereign Borders, which involves turning boats around when it is safe to do so.

He sought to play down tensions ahead of the visit and focus on other issues, such as trade, but the sinking of an asylum-seeker boat off Indonesia Friday with the loss of at least 28 lives has kept boatpeople in sharp focus.

The accident off the main island of Java was the first fatal sinking since Abbott took power, and his government has been forced to defend its actions after survivors claimed that their calls for help to Australia went unheeded.

Survivors of the accident, which also left many missing, told journalists that they sent their GPS coordinates to Australian rescuers to assist them -- but no one came to their aid.

Australian Finance Minister Mathias Cormann stressed on Sunday that the area where the accident occurred was "under Indonesian jurisdiction" and insisted Australia provided "all appropriate assistance".

Hundreds have died in fatal sinkings in recent years, as huge numbers continue to board rickety, wooden boats in Indonesia to try and make the treacherous sea crossing to Australia.

The issue is hugely sensitive in Australia where public anger is growing at the continued influx of boatpeople and it was a key battleground at this month's elections.

But while Abbott's policies helped propel him to power, they have already strained the traditionally strong relationship between Indonesia and Australia, with Jakarta suggesting the measures could infringe its sovereignty.

During a meeting with his Australian counterpart Julie Bishop in New York last week, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said the measure could put cooperation on asylum-seekers at risk.

However, ahead of the visit Abbott dismissed the idea his policies could jeopardise the relationship with Indonesia and insisted his government was "determined to ensure that Australia's foreign policy is focused on our region".

"It is my hope that this visit establishes a convention for all future incoming prime ministers to make Jakarta their first port of call overseas."

He decided to visit Indonesia first instead of more traditional Australian allies, such as the United States or Britain.

Abbott, who will address a breakfast meeting of business leaders and lay a wreath at the Kalibata Heroes Cemetery during his visit, will be accompanied by a 20-member business delegation and is keen to bolster trade ties.

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Writer: AFP
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