Refugees drown on eve of vote in Australia

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The Independent Online

Two women drowned in the Indian Ocean in another tragedy involving asylum-seekers as Australians prepared to vote today in a general election dominated by the refugee issue.

The women leapt into the sea to escape a fire that engulfed their boat as it headed for Australia with 158 passengers including 30 children.

The navy said the fire on the Indonesian vessel appeared to have been deliberately started by the refugees to avoid their boat being turned back by a patrol ship.

There was no independent confirmation of the claim, which was made by John Howard, the Prime Minister. Mr Howard, whose conservative coalition is seeking a third term, has pledged to pursue his hardline stance of refusing entry to boat people if he is re-elected. The latest polls give him a lead of four to six points over the Labour opposition.

Claims by the government that asylum-seekers threw their children into the sea during a similar confrontation a month ago have since been proved false. Ministers also gave credence to a story fabricated by people smugglers that a group of refugees hijacked an Indonesian ferry and forced the crew to jump overboard.

One of the women who died in the latest incident, off Australia's north-west coast, was in her mid-seventies; the other was in her mid-forties. The nationality of the passengers was not released.

According to the navy, the Sumbar Lestari ignored a warning by a customs vessel not to enter Australian waters on Thursday afternoon. When it continued on its way, it was boarded by sailors from the patrol boat, the HMAS Wollongong, who discovered a fire in the hold and tried to extinguish it. A fuel drum exploded and the flames spread. The sailors rescued most of the asylum-seekers before the fire forced them to abandon ship. The Wollongong and the customs boat then picked up people who had panicked and jumped overboard. Efforts to revive the two women failed.

A report by the defence department said the boat – which sank shortly afterwards – had been sabotaged. "They had prepared their vessel to obstruct RAN [Royal Australian Navy] boarding parties and had set about deliberately destroying their vessel in order to avoid their return to Indonesia," it said. Last month, more than 350 asylum-seekers drowned after their wooden fishing boat sank off Indonesia.

Kim Beazley, the Labour leader, who needs a swing of only 0.8 per cent to win, has matched Mr Howard's rhetoric on asylum-seekers and tried to woo the electorate with promises on health, education and employment. But with the campaign overshadowed by the war in Afghanistan, to which Australia has contributed 1,550 defence personnel, voters may decide to play safe.

Mr Howard, whose crackdown on refugees has won him strong support at home, said yesterday that asylum-seekers and people smugglers tried to intimidate the authorities. "They know we will rescue them," he said. "People smugglers are now saying, 'As soon as you get inside Australian territory, make sure the vessel is disabled so it can't be sent back.' "

Newspaper editorials advocated a vote for the coalition. "Against a background of burgeoning war and global economic instability, the safer choice is the return of the Howard government," said the Sydney Morning Herald.