Australia bolsters sea border patrols
September 3, 2001 Posted: 4:18 AM EDT (0818 GMT)
By CNN's Grant Holloway

CANBERRA, Australia (CNN) -- Australia is beefing up its patrolling of the waters between Indonesia and the island continent's north-west outposts in the wake of the current controversy over asylum-seeking boat-people.

An extra five navy vessels and four air planes have been sent to patrol the international waters that separate the two nations in a bid to deter an estimated 5,000 Indonesian-based asylum-seekers heading for Australian shores.

Currently, the Royal Australian Navy operates 15 42-meter Fremantle Class Patrol Boats armed with 40 millimetre guns as its frontline defense against people smugglers.

The boats however are almost 25 years old and the government has recently called for tenders to replace them.

Australia is currently embroiled in an international incident involving more than 400 asylum-seekers that were picked up by a Norwegian cargo ship and demanded to be taken to the Australian territory of Christmas Island.

The Australian government refused the Norwegian ship entry to Australian waters and sent in crack troops to board the ship to ensure the asylum-seekers could not disembark on the island.

The government fears accepting the asylum-seekers for processing to assess their refugee status will unleash a fleet of similar boats bound for Australian shores. The increased security operation will involve five navy vessels and four P3 Orion aircraft and will be reviewed after three weeks.

What action the patrol boats will take should they encounter more boat-people is unknown.

No intrusion into Indonesian waters
Speaking to a media conference Sunday Australian Prime Minister John Howard would only say that the Navy will "act both lawfully and decently but as to the rest of it, I am not going to go into that". Howard said an Australian Defence Force mission had travelled to the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, to brief Indonesian authorities on the moves.

He said that the patrols would not infringe on Indonesian territorial waters and that Indonesia had welcomed the advance notice of the decision.

"The surveillance will take place in international waters, the international waters that lie between the Indonesian archipelago and Australia," Howard said.

"Indonesia thanks us for informing them and they have offered refueling facilities and home porting facilities," he said.

Relations strained
Relations between Australia and Indonesia have been strained of late following Australia's leading of a United Nations force sent to the Indonesian province of East Timor to quell violence surrounding an independence vote there in 1999.

Since then attempts have been made to repair relations and Prime Minister Howard was the first world leader to visit the newly appointed Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri following her elevation to power.

However, the incident with the asylum-seekers has raised tensions again, with Megawati refusing to return a phone call from Howard concerning the matter.

Australia maintains the asylum-seekers aboard the Norwegian ship should have been returned to the nearest Indonesian port, but Indonesia authorities have refused all requests to take responsibility for the situation.

Prime Minister Howard said he would like Australia to have a memorandum of understanding with Indonesia on the refugee issue and that negotiations for such an understanding had been happening for several months.

"I raised the matter when I was in Jakarta with senior ministers of the Indonesian government," Howard said.

"Our proposal was that we will fully fund construction of a detention center in Indonesia through the International Organization of Migration," he said.

"That remains our position. So we are doing all we can but we need the cooperation of other countries."


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