Nelson offers joint navy patrols against Papuans

By Lindsay Murdoch, Craig Skehan and Mark Forbes
April 7, 2006

THE Minister for Defence, Brendan Nelson, has asked Indonesia to agree to joint navy patrols to stop a predicted flood of Papuan asylum seekers crossing the Torres Strait.

Dr Nelson also strongly defended Indonesia's right to send five warships to waters off Papua to intercept any asylum seekers.

"The most important thing for us in Australia is to respect the Indonesian Government, respect the decisions that it makes on behalf of Indonesia," he said yesterday.

The Prime Minister, John Howard, called on activists not to encourage Papuans to leave by boat to seek asylum in Australia.

"That is not something the Australian Government or, I believe, the majority of the Australian public wants," he said. "We regard West Papuans as citizens of the republic of Indonesia and we will not support any kind of independence movement."

The Greens leader, Bob Brown, condemned the plan for joint Indonesian and Australian maritime patrols to intercept Papuans. "This is an attempt to turn West Papua into an enclave from which there is no escape," Senator Brown said.

Labor's foreign affairs spokesman, Kevin Rudd, said Australia should not jettison its international legal obligations under the Convention for the Protection of Refugees.

Mr Rudd said Australia needed to avoid actions that could lead to a repeat of the deaths of 353 Middle Eastern people trying to reach Australia by boat in 2001.

Dr Nelson indicated that he discussed the navy conducting joint patrols when he recently met the chief of the Indonesia's Navy. "I must say to Indonesia, I remain very committed to having the Royal Australian Navy, if it were able to, conduct joint patrols with the Indonesian navy," he said. His comments came at an international military exercise in Darwin that was snubbed by Indonesia.

Dr Nelson said that despite "some strains" in relations with Jakarta over the granting of visas to 42 Papuan asylum seekers, he hoped "before too long we will be able to sit down and talk with Indonesia about continuing our very close relationship".

He denied that Indonesia's decision not to be involved in the Proliferation Security Initiative exercise, aimed at stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction, had anything to do with the Papuan visa row.

Indonesian importers have announced a boycott of Australian goods, and one MP says he has unveiled "evidence" of Australia's support for Papuan independence.

Dr Nelson said customs had called off a search for six more Papuans thought to have landed in Australia. Mr Howard told ABC radio: "The reports indicate that they have almost certainly gone to Papua New Guinea .. That's a good thing in the context of the relationship between Australia and Indonesia."


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