Indonesia has denied claims by asylum-seekers in Australia that genocide was taking place in the remote Indonesian province of Papua. The claim came from a group of more than 40 Papuans who fled their homes by boat last week, and then disappeared for several days before landing in tropical northern Australia.
The group of 36 adults and seven children arrived from Papua on Australia's rugged Cape York Peninsula Wednesday after more than four days at sea. They were feared to have drowned, but were found by a government helicopter crew near a remote Aboriginal community in the north. They have been taken into custody by immigration officers.
The asylum-seekers boat carried a banner accusing Indonesia of committing acts of terrorism and genocide in Papua, a region in the country's far east that has been under Jakarta's control since 1969.
Refugee campaigner Pamela Curr says the asylum-seekers include a number of prominent figures in the Papuan independence movement. "The first name on the list is a man with his family whose uncle was jailed for 20 years for flying the West Papuan flag," she said.
Thousands of Indonesia troops are stationed in the resource-rich province. They have battled a low-level insurgency for many years, and have prompted frequent accusations of human rights violations.
Human rights groups have claimed that at least 100 thousand people in Papua have died in the fight against direct rule from Jakarta.
Indonesia has denied that human rights abuses have occurred in the province. Jakarta has also denied that the asylum seekers will be in danger if they are sent home.
Australian Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone says any application for refugee status by the group will be handled in the normal way. "If they are going to make an asylum claim, we'll hear the asylum claim. I'll just make the point - Australia has an extremely good record," she said. "If someone has a good case for asylum in Australia, Australia offers them protection."
This is only the third boatload of asylum seekers to reach Australia since tough new border control measures were introduced in 2001. The government has also insisted that its policy of detaining most illegal immigrants in camps has proved to be a powerful deterrent. Most applications are processed within a few months, but some people have remained locked away for several years.
Critics have insisted the policy, which has been watered down in recent times, is inhumane.
Some delicate diplomacy could be needed in this case. If the group is granted asylum by Australia, the authorities in Jakarta could take the view that Canberra acknowledges that the allegations of abuse in Papua are valid.
Australia's relations with its giant neighbor, tense for many years, have improved markedly since the Asian tsunami a little more than a year ago.