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Australian PM sidesteps accusations of paying off people smugglers

Australian Prime Minister Abbott has sidestepped accusations that officials paid the crew of a boat carrying 65 migrants to turn back to Indonesia. The move has been slammed by opposition parties and foreign governments.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has neither confirmed nor denied allegations that naval officials provided cash to the crew of a boat carrying 65 migrants from Indonesia.

After being asked repeatedly whether crew members were paid to turn back from Australia's shores, Abbot told radio station 3AW on Friday that the Australian government "will do whatever we need to do" to curb people smuggling.

According to media reports, navy officials boarded the ship near Christmas Island and provided the captain and five crew members with $5,000 (4,452 euros) each to turn back to Indonesian waters.

"By hook or by crook, we are going to stop the trade," Abbott said. "We have stopped the trade and we will do what we have to do to ensure that it stays stopped."

Abbott later told reporters he was unable to comment on the details, citing operational security.

"We don't go into the details of operational measures to fight crime, we don't go into the details of operational measures on national security, and I'm certainly not going to go into the details of operational matters on the water now," Abbott told reporters.

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'Either this happened or it didn't'

Abbott's failure to shed light on the event was slammed by Australian opposition parties.

"[People smugglers] should be facing prosecution with the full force of the law, not be put in a situation that when they turn up aside an Australian Navy vessel, they are in effect next to a floating ATM," said Richard Marles, immigration spokesperson for the opposition Labor Party.

Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, a Greens Party lawmaker, said she was appalled that the prime minister did not provide details on the payment, adding that he "has to be up front," Reuters news agency quoted her as saying on Friday.

"Either this happened or it didn't. Either the Australian government has paid for the trafficking of people on the high seas or it didn't," Hanson-Young told reporters.

The conservative government heralded by Abbott's ascension to power in September 2013 has been criticized for taking a hard line against asylum-seekers and enforcing a rigorous immigration policy.

'Endangered at sea'

Arrmanatha Nasir, Indonesian Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said if the claims were true, "we would truly regret that something like this could happen."

"If true, it's very concerning, especially there were pregnant women and children…whose lives could have been endangered at sea," Nasir said.

ls/sms (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)

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