JAKARTA (DPA) — The captain of a boat carrying asylum seekers insisted he was paid by Australian officials to turn back to Indonesia, speaking in front of media for the first time Wednesday, amid a growing spat between Jakarta and Canberra over the alleged incident.
An Australian official offered him 6,000 dollars and his five crew 5,000 dollars each to take the passengers back to Indonesia and never smuggle people again, the captain told Indonesian police in an interview held in presence of reporters.
Yohanis Humiang said he had been offered 150 million rupiah (12,000 dollars) by a broker to smuggle 65 Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar citizens by sea to New Zealand, the Sydney Morning Herald reported.
His vessel was intercepted by Australian authorities on May 19, just past East Timor, he said.
He told the Australians they had no right to stop the boat as it was in international waters, but was taken onto the Australian customs ship with an official he named as Agus, and questioned.
"We were interrogated: Who recruited us? Who was the agent?" Yohanis was quoted as saying.
The Australians initially suggested flying the crew back by plane, but finally paid off the crew and put them with the asylum seekers onto two other wooden boats off the Australian-owned Ashmore Reef, known as Pulau Pasir in Indonesian.
They set sail for Indonesia followed by the Australian vessels, until one of the wooden boats ran out of fuel.
"Panic ensued among the passengers onboard, it was like in an emergency situation, they were going to kill each other," Yohanis said.
The Australian officials "just don't care any more," and told them to head for the nearest land, he told police.
With all 65 asylum seekers and six crew on the second remaining wooden boat, they landed on a reef off Landu island in Indonesia's West Rote on May 31, where the asylum seekers have were taken in by locals, he told Rote police.
The alleged payments have drawn international criticism. "It is bribery, right?" Indonesia's Vice President Jusuf Kalla said Monday.
"They are still just news reports but we need to know the truth," Kalla said, calling on Abbott to come clean, and saying the payments could constitute human trafficking.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott refusing to deny the reports. "The Australian government will do whatever we need to do to keep this evil trade stopped," Abbott told Melbourne radio station 3AW.
"I just don't want to go into details."