Scott Morrison denies navy fired gunshots while stopping asylum seeker boats

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has denied gunshots have been fired by Australian navy personnel while intercepting asylum seeker boats travelling from Indonesia.

Mr Morrison's denial comes after reports from Indonesian authorities that asylum seekers had claimed Australian navy personnel fired shots into the air as part of the operation to turn around a boat carrying 25 people.

"Without commenting on any specific alleged incident I can confirm that no shots have been fired at any time by any persons involved in Operation Sovereign Borders since the operation commenced," he said in a statement.

Indonesian authorities believe the boat had been unseaworthy and that the operation had left local villagers to rescue stranded asylum seekers from the ocean.

News of the incident came as the Indonesian government warned Australia that it was approaching a 'slippery slope' with its boats policy, specifically its recent purchase of large hard-hulled lifeboats to reportedly carry asylum seekers back to Indonesia.

This is the third confirmed tow-back of an asylum seeker vessel by the Australian authorities since December 13, despite the objections of Indonesian authorities. The other two boats were returned to Rote Island in far-eastern Indonesia.

A local police commissioner from southern Java, who did not want his name or his district published, had told Fairfax Media that villagers plucked a number of asylum seekers from the water a week ago, on January 8, after their boat was turned back by Australia.

The officer, quoting one of those on board, Snilul, 25, from Bangladesh, said the navy had "shot into the air just to scare them".

Mr Morrison said this claim was untrue.

The boat had been carrying 25 people from Bangladesh and Myanmar and two Indonesian crew.

"There were four children, the youngest was one-and-a-half years; there were men and women. Nobody died in the sea," the police officer said.

The asylum seekers told him they had started off from Medan in North Sumatra and had been on the water for 10 days.

After the Australian ship returned them to Indonesian waters, they made their way to the southern coast of Java.

"Midday last Wednesday [January 8] people here in the village saw them swimming in the sea, so people helped them and told us [police] later on."

Asked if he believed the boat was seaworthy for 25 people, the officer said it had only been built for about 10 people.

Fairfax Media has confirmed with other local officials that the asylum seekers were taken to a hotel in the town of Rangkasbitung. A staff member there said the migrants had now left her hotel, but she did not know where they had gone.

When asked about the shooting claims, Labor leader Bill Shorten criticised the Abbott government's "culture of secrecy" around asylum seeker policy, adding that Defence personnel were being politicised by the Coalition.

"I and the entire Labor Party respect the work of our Defence forces," he said while campaigning in Griffith.

"I don't want to see Australian serviceman and servicewomen caught up as the meat in an Abbott-Morrison secrecy sandwich on our boats."

Mr Shorten said the government could end speculation by telling people "the truth".

"The way you fix all these questions, 'were there shots fired? Weren't there shots fired' ... is just on a transparent and regular basis, tell the truth about what's happening on the boats."

Indonesia warns Australia of 'slippery slope'

The reports come as Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa sent a subtle warning to Australia's Immigration Minister Scott Morrison following the Australian government's admission that it had bought lifeboats to carry asylum seekers in "on water" operations.

''Where will this lead to?'' Dr Natalegawa told the ABC.

''Developments of the type that has been reported in the media, namely the facilitation by way of boats, this is the kind of slippery slope that we have identified in the past.''

The Indonesian government strongly objects to the Abbott government's policy of using the navy to "turn back" asylum seekers boats. Dr Natalegawa suggested in his ABC interview that if Australia is helping asylum seekers return to Indonesia, that could be worse than simply turning boats around.

''It's one thing to turn back the actual boats on which they have been travelling," he said. "But [it's] another issue when they are transferred onto another boat and facilitated and told to go in that direction.''

Dr Natalegawa did not say what actions Indonesia would take, but suggested the focus on asylum seekers was straining the Indonesian-Australian relationship.

''To be zeroing in on issues that, in a manner that tends to divide, is not helpful,'' he said

'Missing' boat may have returned to Indonesia

Meanwhile, asylum seeker sources in Cisarua, West Java, said they believed a boat carrying 54 people from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Iraq had gone missing after setting off from the town on January 5 or in the early hours of January 6. But reports late on Wednesday night suggested the boat may have returned to Indonesia.

"There has been no news, no phone calls or contact by internet, no calls to their homes," the source said earlier in the day.

The smuggler was insisting that the boat had reached Christmas Island and that he had received a call from the Indonesian captain. He was demanding payment of money held in trust.

In his most recent press conference, Australian Operation Sovereign Borders chief Lieutenant-General Angus Campbell said no boats had reached Australia in the past three weeks.

with Judith Ireland

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