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Proposed Australia deal could cut deaths at sea: Indonesian minister

JAKARTA -- Australian planes could be allowed into Indonesian airspace during sea search-and-rescue missions under a proposed plan that would help reduce asylum-seeker deaths, Indonesia's defense minister said Wednesday.

The proposal, which was discussed between Australian and Indonesian ministers in Jakarta, might also let Australian planes refuel in Indonesia as part of closer cooperation aimed at saving boatpeople after a spate of drownings.

“This is about saving lives. These efforts could help reduce the deaths at sea,” Defence Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro said.

“Sometimes Australia's planes need to land and refuel, and that's something we understand. We would need to work out the details, of how to communicate in these situations and where the planes can land.”

Australian Defense Minister Stephen Smith said he expected the cooperation deal to be made “in weeks or months, rather than days or weeks,” adding that he hoped it would come about after Australian Transport Minister Anthony Albanese's visit to Indonesia in December.

A statement released by the two nations Tuesday outlined a six-point plan to boost joint rescue efforts, including the Australian government's allocation of an additional US$4.5 million to enhance coordination between the countries' rescue agencies and exchange expertise.

The plan included enhancing Indonesia's satellite surveillance and its ability to call on merchant ships to assist in emergency rescue situations.

Indonesian Transport Ministry spokesman Bambang Ervan said Indonesia's satellite surveillance capacity was “limited.”

“We often get information on boat accidents too late. Hopefully, this information-sharing will translate into early action and more lives can be saved,” 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 boat people have died en route to the country this year.

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Australia's Defense Minister Stephen Smith, second right, and Indonesia's Defense Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro, second left, show documents of an agreement while Australia's Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare, right, and Indonesia's Minister for Research and Technology Gusti Muhammad Hatta, left, look on at the Defense Ministry office in Jakarta on Wednesday, Sept. 5. (AFP)

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