Australia apologises to Jakarta for territorial waters breach

David Crowe
The Australian
January 17, 2014 4:40PM

JAKARTA has warned of further damage to relations with Canberra after Australia admitted breaching Indonesian territorial waters during a border protection mission.

The Abbott government has issued an "unqualified'' apology to Indonesia after the navy's "inadvertent'' breach, in which one or more ships went into Indonesian waters without official permission as they dealt with asylum-seekers.

A spokesman for Indonesia's Co-ordinating Minister for Politics, Security and Law, Djoko Suyanto, said the development was regrettable, while warning it would have implications for already tense relations between Jakarta and Canberra.

"If they entered Indonesian waters like that, this will only worsen the situation and the relationship between Indonesia and Australia,'' Agus Barnas said.

"Australia's attitude in this if they really breached the Indonesian sovereign territory is regrettable. As a good neighbour, Australia should respect Indonesia's sovereignty.''

He said the incident could delay a rapprochement between the countries following Jakarta's decision late last year to freeze co-operation with Australia in the wake of the spying row.

"If what the Australian navy did is true, that would only worsen the Indonesia-Australia relationship,'' he said.

"It could hamper the normalisation of the Indonesia-Australia relationship.''

The minister was aware of the development but was not immediately available for comment.

It's understood Mr Djoko was set to meet with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono later today.

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said the government had received information on Wednesday afternoon that Australian authorities had entered Indonesian waters on several occasions, in breach of Australian government policy.

"This was done unintentionally and without knowledge or sanction by the Australian government,'' he told reporters in Canberra.

Mr Morrison said it was not Australia's policy to violate Indonesia's territorial sovereignty.

"It's regrettable and we have made the appropriate apologies,'' he said in Canberra.

Details of the incursions, including which vessels were involved and when the events occurred, are being reviewed by the Chief of the Defence Force David Hurley and Australian Customs and Border Protection Command.

There is no deadline on the review and Mr Morrison would not say if it would be publicly released, arguing he did not want to be "prescriptive'' to military staff.

It was not revealed how many navy vessels were involved in the breach of Indonesia's 12-nautical mile limit, when the events occurred or how far the vessels went into Indonesian waters.

Mr Morrison also declined to say whether the navy ships were in the process of turning back asylum-seeker vessels when the breaches occurred.

Diplomatic ties were already under pressure after claims Australian intelligence officers tapped the mobile phone of Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his wife and senior government members.

Mr Morrison said Foreign Minister Julie Bishop had offered an "unqualified apology" to her Indonesian counterpart Marty Natalegawa, although he was travelling and unable to receive the message personally.

However, the apology was sent and a more formal apology would be provided to the Indonesian government via the Australian embassy in Indonesia.

"The Australian government takes our shared commitment with Indonesia to mutually respect the sovereignty of each nation very, very seriously,'' Mr Morrison said.

Steps had been taken to ensure such breaches would not occur again, he said.

Operation Sovereign Borders commander Lieutenant General Angus Campbell said he was advised of the breach on Wednesday afternoon after a routine report was examined by a border command official.

He said navy personnel did not know they had breached Indonesian waters at the time.

"I am, and I am sure all those involved in the conduct of Operation Sovereign Borders regret any affront to Indonesia these events may have occurred,'' he said.

"I'm determined such events won't occur again,'' General Campbell said.

He did not think it was ``appropriate'' to speculate on how the incident might have occurred, saying it was a matter for the review.

"In the interim I have put in place some measures that will act as an opportunity to ensure there is no error occurring until we get the results of that review,'' he said.

"I am very comfortable there are active controls to ensure our vessels do not cause such mistakes, or have such mistakes, in the future.''

However, his comments made it clear there were several incidents on different days in which Indonesian sovereignty was breached.

Asked if the incidents went back several weeks, General Campbell said that was a matter for the review.

He said he was not aware of any notification from Indonesian authorities about the incidents, suggesting the mistakes were detected by Australian officials instead.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten says the government needs to stop blaming the navy and take responsibility for its own border protection policy.

"This is incredibly serious,'' Mr Shorten said, adding it was "poor form'' for Mr Morrison to blame the navy for his failings.

"These service men and women do an extremely tough job under very difficult circumstances and they shouldn't be blamed for the failings of the Abbott government and its policies,'' Mr Shorten said.

Australian Greens immigration spokeswoman Senator Sarah Hanson-Young said the government could not be trusted, because two days ago the minister said this type of breach of sovereignty of Indonesia would not occur.

"This is just pure arrogance and shiftiness from the Abbott government. They've been caught out, they're begging for forgiveness, yet they refuse to accept that Indonesia is saying no way to the new boat-swap policy.''

The apology comes after confirmation to The Australian that border-protection authorities have begun using lifeboats to return asylum-seekers to Indonesia, a method used for a boatload of people intercepted near Christmas Island last week.

The government has refused to comment on whether Operation Sovereign Borders has involved towing back or turning back boats into Indonesian waters, or whether lifeboats are being used to do so.

However a group of asylum-seekers say they were given a boat by Australian authorities -apparently a lifeboat - in which they were forced to return to Indonesia under their own steam after their own vessel's engine failed.

The development appears to confirm Australian border-protection authorities have begun using lifeboats to return asylum-seekers to Indonesia, after General Campbell confirmed that a number of such vessels had been acquired.

One asylum-seeker said he was with about 50 others from Bangladesh and Pakistan when they were intercepted close to Christmas Island about 10 days ago, after their boat's engine stopped working.

The man, from Bangladesh, who spoke through a translator, said they were then transferred to an Australian navy vessel, where they remained for several days, before being escorted back towards Indonesia.

They were then given a smaller boat that they used to make their own way to Pelabuuhan Ratu in West Java, which they say took about three hours.

The smaller boat was crewed by the same Indonesian men that had attempted to take the asylum seekers to Christmas Island.

The group arrived at Pelabuuhan Ratu, about 12 hours drive from Jakarta, at about 11am on Wednesday morning.

It's believed they could be from a group of about 54 asylum seekers from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar who had reportedly set out for Christmas Island on about January 5 or 6.

With AAP

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