SYDNEY (AP) — Australian and Indonesian rescuers were trying to help a migrant-filled boat taking on water in bad weather and rough seas off Indonesia on Wednesday, a day after the countries agreed to strengthen maritime ties as a way to combat people smuggling.
The wooden boat issued a distress call early Wednesday morning and was believed to have up to 180 people on board, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said. The Australian navy ship HMAS Wollongong found the boat south of Indonesia, but poor weather was preventing rescuers from boarding the vessel, the maritime authority said.
The boat was intact by the afternoon and moving slowly south toward the Australian territory of Christmas Island, where Australia runs an immigration detention center, Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare said. Indonesia sent a Hercules plane and a navy ship to the location.
"(Rescuers) found that there were no visible signs of distress, but I do need to emphasize this — the weather conditions out there at the moment are very rough," Clare told reporters.
Earlier Wednesday, Clare said the boat had issued a distress signal and reported it was taking on water.
Indonesia was unable to send its only fiberglass hull boat because of the rough seas, said Gagah Prakoso, a spokesman for its National Search and Rescue Agency. The boat was around 80 kilometers (50 miles) southwest of Panaitan, a small island off the western end of the main Java island.
Australia's debate over how to cope with the increasing flow of asylum seekers has intensified since two boats carrying Australia-bound migrants capsized in the last two weeks. More than 90 people are believed to have been killed when the boats sank in the Indian Ocean between Indonesia and Christmas Island.
Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono discussed how to handle the politically charged problem, along with economic and trade issues, at a meeting in the northern town of Darwin on Tuesday.
Gillard said Australia would work with Indonesia's maritime search and rescue agency to help strengthen its communication abilities with vessels during sea disasters and would look into an exchange program of search and rescue specialists.
"I welcome the strong cooperation we have with Indonesia on people smuggling, including Indonesia's law enforcement efforts against people smuggling syndicates," Gillard told reporters on Tuesday.
Yudhoyono said he and Gillard had discussed the importance of the Bali Process, an Asia-Pacific body against people smuggling and human trafficking.
"Indonesia is also a victim of acts of illegal people smuggling," he said. "We hope that we can prevent as far as possible acts of people smuggling in our region."
Australia is a common destination for boats carrying asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Iraq, Sri Lanka and other poor or war-ravaged countries. Many travel first to Indonesia and then try to complete the journey to Australia aboard rickety, overcrowded fishing boats. The boats generally head for Christmas Island, which is much closer to Indonesia than to the Australian mainland.
Associated Press writer Niniek Karmini in Jakarta, Indonesia, contributed to this report.