INDONESIA has threatened to deny Australian requests for ship-to-ship transfer of rescued refugees so they can be returned to Indonesia.
Last Thursday night, Australia pressed Indonesia to take 55 refugees and a man's body back to shore at the port of Merak after their boat had sunk, even though most of the survivors were already on an Australian vessel.
Hadi Lukmono, a senior official at the Indonesian search and rescue agency, Basarnas, told the Herald yesterday Australia had requested the 4am handover in rough seas because five passengers were sick and the ships were close to Indonesia.
But, Mr Hadi said, "it's only for this particular case".
The Minister for Home Affairs, Jason Clare, speaking after meeting his Indonesian counterparts in Jakarta yesterday, said the decision to transfer had been an operational one.
"The decision to transfer those people who survived to Merak was made by the operational experts on the ground, based on the fact that it was the closest port and those survivors needed to get to hospital care as quickly as they could,'' he said.
"The focus here is on saving people's lives."
Mr Clare was in Indonesia with the Defence Minister, Stephen Smith, and the Transport Minister, Anthony Albanese, for talks at which the question of search and rescue co-ordination was at the top of the agenda.
Among the agreements was a plan to give Australian search and rescue aircraft ''rapid clearance'' to land and refuel in Indonesia to boost co-operation between the two countries when dealing with asylum seeker boats in distress.
In the aftermath of last week's sinking tragedy off Java, Australia demanded that Indonesia accept the 33 rescued asylum seekers who were aboard HMAS Maitland and another 23 who were on a group of merchant ships.
Australia's demand meant the traumatised refugees were transferred from ship to ship about 4am in a process that the Indonesian search and rescue co-ordinator told the Herald was "not easy because of the rough sea at that time".
Before Australia's tough new processing legislation was introduced, survivors were regularly taken to Christmas Island even if they were picked up well inside Indonesian waters.
Meanwhile, Indonesia's Justice Minister, Amir Syamsuddin, has confirmed that an alleged people-smuggling kingpin, Sayed Abbas, will be extradited to Australia as soon as he completes his sentence.
Abbas is suspected of having sent dozens of asylum seeker boats to Christmas Island and was arrested in 2010 and 2011 but allegedly continued to send boats to Australia, including a vessel that sank off Java on December 17 last year, killing up to 200 people.