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By Rob Taylor
CANBERRA (Reuters) - Australia will send more police to Asia to combat people traffickers as pressure builds on Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to halt a surge in asylum seekers threatening his government's record popularity a year from new elections.
Rudd said the government would not be emotionally blackmailed into accepting a boatload of 260 Sri Lankans on hunger strike after being stopped by Indonesia's navy near Java following a plea from Rudd to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
"I am not going to be in the business of sending out messages to people smugglers in the regions, and more broadly across the world, that somehow this is a legitimate trade. It is obnoxious and vile," Rudd told local radio on Friday.
The asylum issue threatens to tarnish opinion polls showing the centre-left government on track for a resounding election win and second term in late 2010, or earlier, as upper house Senate obstruction continues to frustrate Rudd's agenda.
Underscoring the dangers, a survey last week found 76 percent of respondents were concerned about an asylum influx which has seen almost 1,650 people arrive this year and which is stretching government detention capabilities.
Australia receives just a fraction each year of what the United Nations estimates to be around 15.2 million refugees globally, but the issue cleaves voters between supporters and opponents of softer immigration laws.
Divisions over asylum seekers carried conservatives to an unexpected victory in 2001 when then prime minister John Howard sent commandos on to a Norwegian freighter at sea to stop 433 Afghans arriving in the country.
Howard went on to govern five more years and oversaw a controversial policy -- strongly criticised by the UN -- of sending asylum seekers into detention on small Pacific island countries during refugee processing, often for years.
Australia in 2008 saw 4,750 people seek asylum, while 333,000 claims were made in Europe, including 35,000 in France and 30,000 in the United Kingdom.
Rudd's intervention to stop the latest boat and plea to Yudhoyono has been compared with Howard's controversial hardline.
"Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has conscripted the Indonesians to do our dirty work rather than ordering our own forces to keep the refugees away. But the effect is the same," said international asylum expert James Hathaway, from Melbourne University.
The government is rushing extra police to Asian transit countries, including Indonesia, to help local authorities disrupt people trafficking syndicates, but Rudd said the government was not considering tougher visas called for by conservatives.
"The United Nations High Commission for Refugees' processes, I believe, are fair. These processes, nor the approach of the Australian government, will be moved by any particular tactics deployed by any particular person," he said.
(Editing by Nick Macfie)

Reuters