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Reports that Australia added passengers to boat sent back to Indonesia raises new controversy

CANBERRA, Australia - Reports that the Australian navy added three passengers to an asylum seeker boat turned back to Indonesia have threatened to further damage already strained relationships between the countries over Australia's tough policies to deter boat arrivals.

The crew of an asylum seeker boat found on an Indonesian island told Indonesian authorities that Australian border control officials added an Indonesian sailor and two asylum seekers from Nepal or Albania to the boat before it was turned back from waters near the Australian island territory of Ashmore Reef on Sunday, Agus Barnas, spokesman for Indonesia's co-ordinating Ministry for Politics, Law and Security, said on Wednesday.

Border Protection Minister Scott Morrison refused to comment on the crew's allegations, maintaining his government's policy of keeping such operations against people smuggling secret.

If true, opposition lawmakers argue that the transfer of foreigners to another boat amounted to an escalation of Australia's border protection policies of turning back boats that Indonesia complains breach its national sovereignty.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said that if confirmed, "this is a very serious development."

Speaking in the sidelines of an international leaders' summit on the resort island of Bali, Natalegawa said he had been informed that the three passengers had been added to 18 asylum seekers aboard the returned boat.

Australian National University expert on foreign relations, William Maley, said Australia might have broken its own people smuggling laws if the additional passengers had been added in Australian waters.

"There may be crucial distinction between, on the one hand, simply pushing back a boat which has appeared at the Australian maritime border, and on the other hand taking people who have been within Australian jurisdiction and placing them on a boat and sending them back," Maley told Australian Broadcasting Corp.

"Because arguably the latter falls within the definition of people smuggling, and there it might well be that those at sea, and those who have been involved in organizing or facilitating that activity — which could of course go right up to the top level of the government — have committed a criminal offence," he said.

Bilateral ties are already strained. Indonesia recalled its ambassador from Canberra, downgraded relations with Australia and suspended co-operation on people smuggling last November following outrage over reported Australian phone-tapping of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, his wife and eight Indonesian ministers and officials in 2009.

With the ambassador yet to return, Yudhoyono offered Prime Minister Tony Abbott an olive branch by inviting him to attend the Bali summit this week and their first face-to-face meeting since the diplomatic spat.

But last Friday, Abbott declined the invitation, citing last-minute work commitments on his first annual budget. Opposition lawmakers and the media say Abbott did not want to be in Indonesia when the latest asylum seeker controversy erupted.

Abbott phoned Yudhoyono on Tuesday and the two leaders discussed potential dates for a face-to-face meeting as early as June.


Associated Press writer Niniek Karmini in Jakarta contributed to this report.

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