Australia remains committed to ensuring 78 asylum seekers rescued at sea in Indonesian waters will disembark in Indonesia, Acting Prime Minister Julia Gillard says.
The asylum seekers aboard the Oceanic Viking are still refusing to disembark, more than two weeks after the Australian Customs vessel arrived off the island of Bintan.
“We made an agreement with Indonesia that we would disembark the people rescued at sea in Indonesia, we are still committed to that course,” Ms Gillard told Sky News today.
The Government matter would be dealt with “patiently and methodically” but it was a complex and challenging issue, she said.
The Government continues to claim that the asylum seekers will disembark in Indonesia as the Indonesia Government loses patience with the time it is taking the resolve the standoff.
Indonesia rebuffed Prime Minister Kevin Rudd yesterday, denying his claim it had "infinite patience" regarding the standoff.
It said the asylum seekers would not be allowed to stay in community housing if they disembarked.
Indonesia's position that the matter must be resolved by Friday and that the Tamils must be housed in a detention centre could scuttle a deal being worked out between Australia and the asylum seekers after more than two weeks of negotiations.
A Foreign Ministry spokesman, Teuku Faizasyah, did not rule out extra time, but said: "We have abundant patience, we have already shown this.
"But we don't have infinite patience. There is a difference."
Australian officials have come close to securing a deal allowing the rapid resettlement of the Sri Lankans in exchange for them leaving the Oceanic Viking and staying in Indonesia for a few months.
But the Sri Lankans - many of whom have spent time in Indonesian detention centres before - are reluctant to do so again.
It is understood that Australia is working on the option of an official appointed as a kind of case officer for the Sri Lankans while in detention in Tanjung Pinang.
If the Sri Lankans do not accept a deal, it appears inevitable they will have to be taken to Christmas Island, a humiliating outcome for the Australian Government, which has said there was no chance that would happen.
Meanwhile, a group of 10 women - all of them mothers - have started a hunger strike on their boat moored at a port in Merak, western Java.
All but eight of the 255 Sri Lankans aboard the boat have refused to disembark for almost a month until they are briefed by officials from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
A spokesman for the group, Sanjeev Kuhendrarajah - who uses the pseudonym "Alex" - said: "They feel they have no future, so they are determined to speak up."
Mr Kuhendrarajah has been forced to admit he was deported from Canada in 2003 after serving time in jail for his involvement with violent Tamil drug gangs and his threat to kill a rival.
Meanwhile, Australia and Sri Lanka have signed an agreement during a visit by Foreign Minister Stephen Smith that both Governments claim will make it easier to investigate and prosecute people smugglers.
The memorandum of understanding on legal co-operation against people smuggling will harmonise laws on people smuggling between the two countries and deepen co-operation in the area.
Mr Rudd is to sign a new people smuggling pact with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono later this week that will aim to formalise Jakarta's responsibility for Australia-bound asylum seekers intercepted in Indonesia's search and rescue waters.
Though officials are still thrashing out the details, it is believed Mr Rudd and Dr Yudhoyono will agree to the new arrangement when the pair meet on the sidelines of the APEC meeting in Singapore at the weekend.WITH SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
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