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Two die after refugee boat set alight

Australia's hard line policy on boatpeople has earned international condemnation  

By CNN's Grant Holloway

SYDNEY, Australia (CNN) -- Tragedy has again struck after a boat carrying asylum seekers bound for Australia sank after it was reported to have been deliberately set on fire.

Two women died and 160 people had to be rescued after the boat was sabotaged after being intercepted by Australian Navy and Customs vessels on Thursday, defense officials say.

The women were thought to have drowned after the burning boat had to be abandoned.

A defense department document on the incident, seen by CNN, says the asylum seekers had deliberately destroyed the vessel to prevent the navy returning it to Indonesian waters.

"That this was a deliberate action by the PII (potential illegal immigrants) is reinforced by the fact that they all wore lifejackets," the document says.

It said an Indonesian-flagged vessel, the Sumbar Lestari, had ignored warnings from the navy patrol boat HMAS Wollongong to turn back and entered Australian waters.

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The boat was then boarded by navy personnel who had to negotiate barricades erected by those on board.

"On boarding the Sumbar Lestari, a fire was discovered and the ship subsequently abandoned," the document says.

"HMAS Wollongong and ACV Arnhem Bay began immediate rescue operations.

"During the rescue operations, two women were recovered from the water unconscious with no pulse."

The latest incident comes as accusations fly in Australia over whether the government misled the public over claims an earlier boatload of asylum seekers had deliberately thrown their children overboard in order to blackmail the navy into taking them to Australia.

The government had used the incident politically to reinforce its tough new stance on asylum seekers, but conflicting claims from Australian naval officers suggest no such actions occurred and that the government had been misinformed.

The release of a navy video that the government had earlier said supported the child-throwing claims proved inconclusive, although it did clearly indicate the boat was distressed and sinking and that those on board had to abandon the vessel.

Bipartisan support

The government, which faces an election on Saturday, adopted the electorally popular zero-tolerance stance on illegal immigration in mid August after a Norwegian freighter, the Tampa, attempted to bring rescued asylum seekers to Australian territory.

The government's policy of turning away boat people -- which has bipartisan support from the opposition Labor party -- has attracted a phalanx of high-profile detractors within Australia as well as international condemnation.

Senior religious leaders, academics and political figures from all sides of politics have voiced their concern over the stance which they say is inhumane and damaging to Australia's international reputation.

The U.N. Association of Australia and the Australian Council for Overseas Aid have begun a community pledge calling for a "constructive and transparent debate about Australia's obligations to protect asylum seekers under the 1951 Refugee Convention".

The pledge also calls for "an end to misleading rhetoric which exaggerates the situation affecting Australia and promotes anxiety amongst Australians".

The number of boat people arriving illegally in Australia has risen to about 5,000 a year, a trickle by international standards but a jump on a few hundred just five years ago.

International obligations

The Refugee Action Coalition on Friday linked the latest tragedy to the government's hard line policies.

Coalition spokesman Ian Rintoul told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation the asylum seekers were desperate people fleeing persecution so it was not surprising they would take desperate measures to get to safety.

Rintoul said the government should take responsibility for the consequences of shutting the door to asylum seekers.

"If they weren't trying to turn the boats around, if they were prepared to recognize their international obligations, these people would be accepted and processed as asylum seekers," he said.

"But the more the government tries to maintain this ridiculous border protection policy, the greater the number of casualties we're going to see."

More than 350 asylum seekers drowned three weeks ago when an overcrowded vessel destined for Australia sank in Indonesian waters.


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