SYDNEY (Reuters) - An Australian navy vessel was headed towards a suspected asylum seeker boat in distress south of Indonesia on Friday, just as the leaders of the two countries met to discuss refugees, one of the key issues in Australia's upcoming general election.
The boat, around 42 nautical miles south of Java, had requested assistance and been spotted by a customs surveillance aircraft, Australian Customers and Border Protection said.
One navy vessel and two merchant ships were heading to the scene, a spokesman said, adding that the boat was still making its way south.
"It's reported that there are 80 people on board," a spokeswoman for the Australian Maritime Safety Authority told the Australian Associated Press. "We believe they are taking on water."
Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is visiting Indonesia on his first overseas trip since being reinstalled to address sensitive bilateral issues including asylum seekers with Indonesia President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
Refugees seeking asylum in Australia often set sail from Indonesia or Sri Lanka, heading for Australia's Indian Ocean territory of Christmas Island in dangerous and overcrowded boats, with the help of people smugglers.
Rudd is seeking to defuse voter unease ahead of elections scheduled for September and is expected to take a tougher line on refugees than his predecessor, Julia Gillard.
Rudd replaced Gillard as prime minister in a Labor party vote last month after successive polls predicting a Labor government washout at the election.
(Editing by Nick Macfie)
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