Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, Scott Morrison, denies reports Australian navy personnel fired shots to 'scare' those on board an asylum seeker boat bound for Christmas Island.
“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.
An Indonesian local police commissioner from southern Java, who did not want to be named, told Fairfax Media that villagers plucked a number of asylum seekers from the water on January 8 after their boat was turned back by Australian authorities.
After speaking to those on board the boat, the officer said the navy had "shot into the air just to scare them".
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison told AAP on Thursday he would not comment on the specific allegation.
"(But) I can confirm that no shots have been fired at any time by any persons involved in Operation Sovereign Borders since the operation commenced," Mr Morrison said in a statement.
Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young said the government should provide more detail.
"The possibility of shots being fired is really alarming," she told ABC radio.
INDONESIA WARNS OF 'SLIPPERY SLOPE'
LMeanwhile, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa has indicated that Australia could be going further than turning boats back, by potentially facilitating the movement of asylum seekers.
Dr Natalegawa was responding to the federal government's admission that lifeboats have been bought - reportedly to send asylum seekers back to Indonesia.
"Developments of the type that have 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," Dr Natalegawa said.
Operation Sovereign Borders commander Angus Campbell on Wednesday confirmed the purchase of the lifeboats but declined to say how they would be used.
BOAT SLOWDOWN 'ENCOURAGING'
Under the Abbott government's Operation Sovereign Borders, asylum-seekers are sent to Pacific islands camps for processing with no chance of settlement in Australia, while boats intercepted at sea can be turned back to Indonesia.
On Wednesday, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said he would no longer be delivering weekly updates to media as Operation Sovereign Borders entered its next phase.
"We've had no arrivals now for coming on to four weeks. In that same period last year there were over 450 arrivals and in the two previous years the arrivals were also in the hundreds," he said.
Lieutenant General Angus Campbell, who heads the military-led operation, told a press conference that "While I'm encouraged by this, I am not complacent."
"It will only be after the monsoon season ends, around late March, that I will be able to be in a position to confidently offer an assessment of how the operation is going," he said.
Morrison said the dramatic fall in the number of asylum-seekers arriving by boat in Australia indicated "the right policies are in the right hands and they're beginning to get the right results".
Australia has refused to say whether any approaching boats have been turned back towards Indonesia, traditionally a key transit point for asylum-seekers fleeing countries such as Afghanistan and Iran, under the policy which has rankled Jakarta.
But Morrison hinted that reports of tow-backs could be accurate.
"While we do not comment on the details of our maritime operations, Border Protection Command is doing things differently to provide active deterrents to those seeking to enter Australia illegally by boat," he said.
Campbell did confirm media reports that officials had purchased large lifeboats to deploy as part of its work but would not provide information regarding "the potential or actual employment of these lifeboats".
Reports said the boats, similar to those carried by cruise ships, would be used to get asylum-seekers intercepted at sea back to Indonesia if their own boats were unseaworthly by releasing them near Indonesian waters, with sufficient fuel and provisions for them to reach land.
The government has refused to discuss "operational matters" related to border security and Morrison also said weekly press conferences would no longer be held, with a written statement to be issued instead.
Campbell said the public will be notified of serious incidents such as loss of life, but that information on operations would not be released to avoid giving people-smugglers a tactical advantage.
The government also refused to comment on reports that some asylum-seekers on Christmas Island were on hunger strike and had sewn their lips together.
"This particular incident is under control," Morrison said.