Gillard defends abandoning of bodies

Australian leader faces criticism for decision to end hunt for asylum seekers lost at sea


Prime Minister Julia Gillard on Tuesday defended her government’s decision to leave the bodies of drowned asylum seekers in the ocean, as a search began for yet another vessel in the Indian Ocean.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority said two aircraft had been dispatched to look for a boat north of the Cocos Islands.

“The search area is approximately 260 nautical miles north of the Cocos Islands. We do not have any information about the number of people on board,” AMSA said in a statement.

The move came after an extensive three-day air and sea search for a boat of asylum seekers presumed to have capsized near the Indian Ocean territory of Christmas Island with at least 55 people on board last week. No survivors were found.

Up to 13 bodies were spotted in the water, along with debris and life jackets, but they were not recovered while the hunt for survivors was on. Customs officials said Monday they were now too busy rescuing other boats.

“That is a very tough decision but it is an operational decision,” Gillard told reporters.

Australia’s Tamil community criticized the move, saying there would be outrage if the bodies of Australian victims were left in the remote waters off Christmas Island.

“If they were Australians, I am sure that I would be angry,” Bala Vigneswaran, executive officer of the Australian Tamil Congress, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. “I’m sure that everybody here in Australia would be very disappointed and I don’t think we would have treated Australians like this.”

Asked about this criticism, Gillard said Australia would “always put the highest priority on saving lives.”

The doomed vessel was one of several arriving over the past week, with seven boats carrying a total of around 500 people intercepted since June 5, including one carrying more than 90 people that sought assistance near Christmas Island.