Australian policy not to blame for Indonesia incursions: review

Matt Siegel

By Matt Siegel

SYDNEY (Reuters) - An Australian review into violations of Indonesian territory by its navy released on Wednesday has cleared government policy of blame for the incursions, which contributed to a sharp deterioration in relations between the neighbors.

Australia apologized to Indonesia last month for the breaches, which occurred as part of Canberra's policy of stopping boats carrying would-be asylum seekers from entering its waters.

The review, conducted jointly by the Australian Defence Force and Customs and Border Protection Service, found that breaches occurred on six occasions "contrary to Australian Government policy and operational instructions".

"The breaches were inadvertent and the review found there was nothing in the strategic guidance provided for the operation which required, implied or suggested that a breach of Indonesian sovereignty would be acceptable," the report said.

The finding that the incursions were the result of "incorrect calculation of the boundaries of Indonesian waters rather than as a deliberate action or navigational error" seems to point blame away from the government.

It is unclear whether the findings will repair ties with Indonesia, at their lowest point since the 1990s after recent allegations Australia had spied on President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and other senior Indonesian officials.

Indonesia downgraded relations with Australia in November as a result of the spying allegations, suspending intelligence and military cooperation, including over asylum seekers.

The number of refugees reaching Australia is small compared to other countries, but it is a polarizing political issue that also stokes tension with Indonesia over border policies criticized by the U.N. and international human rights groups.

The report was released as Prime Minister Tony Abbott's tough stance on asylum seekers has come under fresh scrutiny after a series of events, including riots, involving its policy of transferring asylum seekers to third countries.

Australia uses detention centers in Papua New Guinea and on the tiny Pacific island of Nauru to process would-be refugees sent there after trying to get to Australia, often in unsafe boats after paying people smugglers in Indonesia.

An asylum seeker was killed and at least 77 injured on Monday in the second riot this week at the Papua New Guinea facility on Manus island, prompting critics to demand its closure.

Australia's arrangement with Nauru has also come under fire following moves by the island's authorities that critics denounce as authoritarian and anti-democratic.

(Editing by Ron Popeski)