Back off, Jakarta tells Australia

Brendan Nicholson and Peter Alford
January 18, 2014 12:00AM

INDONESIA has demanded Australia stop its border-protection operations and warned it will strengthen warship patrols of its maritime borders, after Australian patrol vessels breached Indonesian territorial waters.

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison confirmed the territorial waters breaches, revealed in The Australian yesterday, and Australia's unqualified apology but he refused to confirm the violations occurred as Operation Sovereign Borders vessels forced asylum-seeker boats back to Indonesia.

The turn-back operation apparently started in mid-December, in spite of Jakarta's hostility to the strategy. Reportedly five boatloads have since been forced to return, though Indonesia only officially confirms two and Canberra refuses to acknowledge any specific case.

A spokesman for Indonesia's senior security minister warned the new incidents threatened attempts to repair the bilateral relationship, following the November revelation that an Australian security agency had mounted a spying operation in 2009 against President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, his wife and their political confidants.

"If they entered Indonesian waters like that, this will only worsen the situation and the relationship between Indonesia and Australia," said Agus Barnas, spokesman for Djoko Suyanto, Coordination Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs.

Indonesia plans to boost its naval presence where the Australian incursions happened, with a third frigate set to join the southern patrol.

"The government of Indonesia has the legal right to protect and defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity in accordance with international laws and the UN Charter," it said.

In "condemning and rejecting" the 20km marine border violations yesterday, Mr Djoko and Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa explicitly linked the Australian border breaches and the turn-back operation.

"Indonesia demands that such operations conducted by the Australian government that leads to these incidents be suspended until formal clarification is received and guarantees such incidents will not recur," he said.

The statement, which does not acknowledge Australia's "unqualified apology" for the incursions, was released following meetings with Dr Yudhoyono yesterday morning and phone consultation with Dr Natalegawa, who is visiting Myanmar.

Mr Morrison said yesterday that Foreign Minister Julie Bishop had been unable to convey Australia's apology directly to her counterpart on Thursday night because he was travelling.

Mr Morrison yesterday blamed "positional errors" for the incursions which he said were accidental. "I unreservedly apologise to the government of Indonesia for this," Mr Morrison said.

The Weekend Australian understands there were five or six breaches of Indonesian waters involving two vessels from the Royal Australian Navy and one from the Australian Customs Service, all operating under the control of Border Protection Command.

An investigation into the extent of the incursions, which vessels were involved and why and when they entered Indonesian water has been launched by Australian Defence Force chief, David Hurley.

It is considered unlikely that the crews of the Australian vessels were unaware of their positions given the sophisticated navigation equipment aboard them.

It is possible that the Australian vessels may have continued to tow or to escort asylum-seeker vessels to get them closer to a landfall on Indonesia either to ensure they made it there safely or to stop them turning back towards Australia or Christmas Island.

Tony Abbott, Ms Bishop and Mr Morrison have repeatedly assured Indonesia their boats strategy did not involve Australian vessels entering Indonesian waters.

Bill Shorten accused Mr Morrison of blaming the sailors to cover up flaws in the government's policies.

Operation Sovereign Borders commander 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'm determined such events won't occur again," Lieutenant General Campbell said.

Additional reporting: AAP


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