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Boat carrying asylum seekers to Australia sinks off Indonesian coast

Police in Indonesia say passengers were from the Middle East

At least 21 people have died after an Australia-bound boat carrying asylum seekers sank in the Indian Ocean.

The vessel sank off the coast of Indonesia.

The issue of the so-called "boat people" - those who arrive in the country after long and extremely dangerous trips in unsafe vessels - is a hot political topic in Australia, and was a central theme in the campaign of newly-elected Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

Dedy Kusuma Bakti, police chief in Cianjur, West Java, told Reuters: "All the passengers were from the Middle East. There were people from Lebanon and Yemen. The boat was going to Australia. Their next destination was Christmas Island."

He said 28 survivors had been rescued.

Indonesian media reported that the motor boat sank off the south coast of Java near the town of Tegalbulued, about 120 miles south of Jakarta.

Mr Abbott is due visit Indonesia on Monday - his first overseas trip since winning the general election on 7 September. He will meet President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to seek support for his plan for the country's navy to turn migrants away and stop people traffickers operating from Indonesian ports.

About 400 boats carrying asylum seekers have arrived in Australia over the past 12 months and about 45,000 asylum seekers have arrived since late 2007.

Situated in the Indian Ocean not far from Indonesia, the Australian territory of Christmas Island is a frequent destination for refugee boats from Indonesia and a favored route for people-smugglers.

In July, the then prime minister Kevin Rudd announced draconian new measures to stem the tide of asylum seekers. Under the changes, the refugees will not have their claims heard in Australia, but at processing centres on Papua New Guinea where, if the claim is accepted, they will be resettled.

The move was condemned by human rights groups, and the UN High Commission on Refugees said the system had  "significant shortcomings."