New controversy in Australia-Indonesia relations

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CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — 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, Australian Associated Press and Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported.

Border Protection Minister Scott Morrison on Wednesday refused to comment on the reports, 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.

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 ABC.

"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 offense," he said.

Indonesia Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said late Tuesday he understood that an additional two asylum seekers had been added to a boat carrying 18 asylum seekers that was sent back to Indonesia.

"If confirmed, obviously, this is a very serious development," Natalegawa told reporters.

Bilateral ties are already strained. Indonesia recalled its ambassador from Canberra, downgraded relations with Australia and suspended cooperation 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 an international leaders' summit on the resort island of Bali 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.

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