CANBERRA, Mar 30 (Reuters) An Indonesian cartoon depicting Australia's prime minister and foreign minister as fornicating dingoes was ''grotesque'', Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said today as bilateral tension flared with Jakarta.
Prime Minister John Howard acknowledged that Canberra's decision to grant protection visas to 42 asylum seekers from Indonesia's troubled Papuan province had strained ties.
''This incident has put a strain on the relationship,'' Howard told a news conference in Canberra on Thursday.
''I believe that the challenge will pass. I don't believe it's going to cause any fundamental lasting damage to the relationship,'' Howard said, adding that he had taken no personal offence from the lurid newspaper cartoon.
Papuan independence activists have campaigned for more than 30 years to break away from Indonesia, while a low-level rebellion has also simmered. Human rights groups accuse Indonesia of widespread abuses there, but Jakarta denies any wrongdoing.
Howard again reassured Indonesia that Australia had not changed its support for Indonesian sovereignty over Papua, saying that Canberra's processes for dealing with asylum seekers were independent of foreign policy considerations.
Indonesia recalled its ambassador to Australia last week in protest at the decision taken to grant protection visas to the Papuans despite a request from President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono for the asylum seekers to be returned.
The visa decision prompted protests outside the Australian embassy in Jakarta on Monday. The cartoon which ran in Monday's Rakyat Merdeka newspaper depicted Downer and Howard as dingoes (wild dogs), with Howard's front paws on Downer's back, saying: ''I want Papua!! Alex! Try to make it happen!''.
''You can publish cartoons which are tasteless and grotesque, but you are free to do so,'' Downer said on Thursday, adding that Australians would regard the publication as offensive.
''But they're free to be offensive in a magazine in Indonesia if they wish to be,'' he said, adding: ''This cartoon is certainly a very base piece of work.'' Downer called Rakyat Merdeka a tacky publication.
Traditionally volatile, Canberra's ties with Jakarta hit a low in 1999, when Australia led peacekeeping forces into the former Indonesian province of East Timor to quell militia violence.
But the relationship later improved with close anti-terrorism cooperation after the 2002 bombings on the Indonesian resort island of Bali which killed scores of Australians, and Canberra's prompt aid following the devastating 2004 tsunami.
REUTERS CH KP1000