Search for Papuans called off

From AAP and the Herald Sun
06apr06 Australian

CUSTOMS officials have called off the search for a boatload of Papuans thought to be on an island in the Torres Strait, saying the group is not in Australian waters.

Reports emerged yesterday that six asylum seekers from the Indonesian province had landed on an island in Australia's north.

Human rights groups said union organiser Paulus Samkakai had fled with his wife and four children from the southern port of Merauke over the weekend.

But Customs last night said the group was not in Australian waters.

Customs had mounted a comprehensive aerial search for the Papuans and investigated a number of possible landing sites, a spokesman said.

"All of these investigations did not reveal any evidence of an unauthorised landing," he said.

"Information provided to Customs ... has indicated that the Papuan family did not, in fact, land in Australia."

Reports of the landing had threatened to further strain relations between Indonesia and Australia, already under pressure since late last month when Australia granted temporary protection visas to 42 Papuan asylum seekers.

Adding to the tension, warning shots were fired at suspected illegal Indonesian fishing vessels during a swoop by the Australian Navy.

Shots were fired, 23 boats seized and 197 people arrested in the two-week Operation Breakwater.

Images of burning boats are sure to anger Indonesian nationalists already furious at Australia for granting protection visas to 43 West Papua refugees.

Indonesia yesterday announced it had strengthened its naval presence in the waters between the two countries.

And President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono warned the international community, including Australia, to stay out of its affairs.

"The problem in Papua is an internal problem of our country. We do not want outsiders, from wherever they come, to interfere in our internal affairs," he said during a flying visit to the troubled province.

"Once again, I want to say that we want to settle the problem in Papua in a peaceful, just and dignified way."

Prime Minister John Howard repeated Australia's respect for Indonesia's sovereignty over Papua.

"My message to the people of West Papua is simply this: I regard them as citizens of the Republic of Indonesia," he said.

West Papua support groups in Australia claim hundreds more asylum seekers are waiting to make the journey to Australia.

The granting of protection visas to 42 asylum seekers last month prompted Indonesia to recall its ambassador.

Mr Howard and Mr Yudhoyono have yet to meet to discuss the rift.

Operation Breakwater was conducted over two weeks off the coast of Arnhem Land in response to growing pressure over illegal fishing.

"We've seen an increase in more aggressive behaviour and that's something which is a concern to us and indeed on more than one occasion we've had to fire shots," Customs Minister Chris Ellison said.

"They were warning shots and they were not fired directly at the crew involved."

He said the crews were being detained at Baxter detention centre.


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