Arab asylum-seeker boat sinks off Indonesia, leaves 22 dead

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At least 22 people, mostly children, drowned and scores are missing after an Australia-bound boat carrying Middle Eastern asylum-seekers sank off Indonesia Friday in rough seas, police said.

Twenty-five people were plucked to safety but more than 70 were unaccounted for after the boat carrying people from Lebanon, Jordan and Yemen went down off the main Indonesian island of Java, police said.

It was the first deadly asylum boat accident since Tony Abbott became Australia's prime minister this month and came just days before he visits Indonesia for talks likely to focus on his tough policies aimed at deterring boatpeople.

One Lebanese man escaped from the sinking boat by swimming to an island, but he believes his eight children and pregnant wife were killed, an official in Lebanon said.

Hussein Khodr called people in his home village of Kabiit "and told them that the boat sank at dawn, when waves destabilised the vessel," said Ahmad Darwish, local government head in the northern Lebanese village.

Darwish said it was not the first time that people from the poor region had sought to reach Australia by boarding rickety asylum-seeker boats in Indonesia.

Warsono, a police official in Cianjur district on Java, said the bodies were discovered floating in an estuary on Friday morning.

"We have now found 22 dead bodies, most of them are children as they cannot swim," he said. "The dead bodies were swept ashore by big waves."

The official, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, said it was dangerous for rescue boats due to "big waves" and the boat had been "broken into several pieces".

A spokesman for the Indonesian search and rescue agency said that four of its boats, along with fishing boats, had earlier been searching for the missing.

The search had been called off when it got dark and would resume again on Saturday, he said.

Warsono said that survivors told him the boat was carrying around 120 people when it went down and had been heading for the Australian territory of Christmas Island.

They had departed from the fishing town of Pelabuhan Ratu, in the district of Sukabumi, on the south coast of western Java, he said.

The Lebanese foreign ministry said that it had been informed by its ambassador to Jakarta that 18 Lebanese had been pulled from the water during the rescue operation.

The boat suffered mechanical problems 10 hours after setting off and attempted to retrace its course back to Indonesia, but it ended up sinking, said the ministry.

Hundreds of asylum seekers from around the world have died in recent years trying to make the treacherous sea crossing from Indonesia to Australia on rickety, wooden boats.

They normally pay people-smugglers huge sums to make the crossings, and almost always head for Christmas Island, which is far closer to Indonesia than it is to the Australian mainland.

Boatpeople were a key battleground in the Australian elections earlier this month due to growing public anger as thousands continue to arrive after making the hazardous sea crossing from Indonesia.

Abbott will begin a two-day visit to Indonesia on Monday, with talks expected to focus on his tough boatpeople policies, which have caused anger in Indonesia.

He has ordered a military led border protection plan to deter boatpeople which will see vessels turned back when conditions are safe.

His plans also include buying up fishing boats to keep them out the hands of people-smugglers, embedding Australian police in Indonesian villages and paying locals for intelligence.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa has reacted angrily to the plan, telling his Australian counterpart Julie Bishop on the sidelines of a UN meeting this week that Jakarta "cannot accept any Australian policy that would, in nature, violate sovereignty".

But on Friday Abbott described asylum-seekers arriving by boat from Indonesia as a "passing irritant" to the countries' relationship and denied his plans would jeopardise relations with Australia's northern neighbour.

Though they arrive by boat in relatively small numbers by global standards, some 13,000 in the first six months of this year , asylum-seekers are a heated political issue in Australia, and one of Abbott's main campaign mantras was "Stop the Boats".

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