Australia, Indonesia mull search and rescue deal

SYDNEY - Australian planes could be allowed into Indonesian airspace during search and rescue missions at sea if a proposed cooperation deal is agreed, Defence Minister Stephen Smith said Wednesday.

Smith, who is visiting Jakarta for talks with his Indonesian counterpart, said Indonesia might also let Australian planes refuel on its land as part of closer cooperation aimed at saving asylum-seekers after a spate of drownings.

"The one area... where Defence Minister Purnomo and I have made a contribution to the search and rescue effort is to agree that we should explore whether we can have a rapid entry by Australian search and rescue planes into sovereign territorial air space of Indonesia," Smith told ABC radio.

"And also to see whether search and rescue planes can land in Indonesia rather than waste time by a return journey."

Smith would not put a time frame on finalising such an agreement, saying it could take months, but added that both sides were interested.

"It's a significant, practical advantage and a time-saver if we can affect it and so far the signs are good that we can," he said.

Scores of asylum-seekers, many originally from Afghanistan, have drowned in recent months while attempting the dangerous boat journey from Indonesia to Australia.

In the most recent case, close to 100 people are thought to have lost their lives last week after their boat disappeared off the coast of Java.

Indonesian officials initially investigated but called the search off after finding no sign of the boat or wreckage, but 55 people were eventually plucked from the ocean by merchant ships and an Australian navy vessel.

By the time the first people were rescued, they had been in the water for almost 24 hours and had drifted far from the Javanese coast.

The survivors, including one with a shark wound, were handed over to Indonesian authorities because it was decided they were in desperate need of medical assistance and the closest place was Indonesia, Smith said.

Australia is facing a steady influx of asylum-seekers arriving by boat, many of whom use Indonesia as a transit hub, paying people-smugglers for passage on leaky wooden vessels after fleeing their home countries.

Hundreds of boatpeople have died en route to the country this year.

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