Sat, Mar 25, 2006 - Page 4 News List

Jakarta livid at Australian visa decision

PAPUA SHOWDOWN Indonesia's ambassador in Canberra was recalled as the parliament in Jakarta vented its spleen over the visas for Papuan refugees


Indonesia reacted furiously yesterday to Australia's decision to grant temporary visas to asylum seekers from Papua Province, recalling its ambassador and warning that the move jeopardized ties between the neighboring countries.

"The government of Indonesia is surprised, disappointed and very much regrets this decision," the foreign ministry said in a statement, adding that it showed that "elements in Australia" back the eastern Indonesian region's separatist movement.

Australia said on Thursday that 42 of a group of 43 people from the province had been granted temporary protection visas, entitling them to stay in Australia for three years.

The group, who arrived in northeastern Australia in January, had accused the Indonesian military of conducting genocide in their homeland while putting down the decades-long separatist movement.

Granting the group asylum is sensitive because it is an effective acknowledgment by Canberra that Indonesian security forces are abusing human rights in Papua, where rights activists say 100,000 have been killed in anti-insurgent operations since 1969.

Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda said yesterday that he was ordering Indonesia's ambassador in Australia to return to Jakarta "as soon as the first flight could bring [him] ... back home" to discuss the matter.

Wirajuda said there had been no discussion of cutting diplomatic relations entirely.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono personally called Australian Prime Minister John Howard to reassure him that the group, which includes seven children, would not be harmed if they returned to Papua.

Indonesia's parliament yesterday urged the government to permanently withdraw Ambassador Hamzah Thayeb.

"We regret the move by the Australian government which can only worsen bilateral relations," House Speaker Agung Laksono said in a speech before the 550-seat parliament.

The foreign ministry said the Papuans were "economic migrants who wanted to start a better life" in Australia and reiterated earlier claims they were in no danger in Papua, which is mostly Christian, unlike the rest of mainly Muslim Indonesia.

"The decision is counter productive and does not take into account the sensitivities of the Indonesian people regarding this issue," the strongly worded statement said. "It is against the spirit of bilateral cooperation."

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said he hoped ties would not suffer as a result of the decision, which he said was legally impossible for the government to overturn.

"Bilateral cooperation is in our mutual interest," he told Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio, stressing that Australia still recognized Papua as an integral part of Indonesia.

Many Indonesians believe that Australia secretly supports Papuan independence -- suspicions that stem largely from the key role Australian troops played in restoring order to East Timor when it broke from Jakarta's rule in 1999.

The ministry also claimed the decision could hurt Indonesian moves to broker a peace deal in Papua.

Indonesia's military chief questioned why the Australian coast guard had been unable to spot the asylum seekers' wooden boat and turn it away before it landed.

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