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Australia says sensitive to tense Indonesia ties

Written by: Staff

Canberra, Apr 4: Australia hopes to gradually rebuild communications with Indonesia after a row sparked by Canberra's decision to give asylum to 42 refugees from Indonesia's Papua province, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said today.

''We have to work through this period and I think from our point of view ... we just have to be cautious and sensitive about this,'' Downer told Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio.

''I think it's just best to take things cautiously and calmly and not rush into anything.'' Indonesia called its ambassador back from Canberra for consultation after the Australian decision last month, and there have been acrimonious comments from politicians and media on both sides.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said yesterday he would review Jakarta's relationship with Canberra, questioned Australia's support for Indonesian sovereignty, and said doubt had been cast on a deal to cooperate on illegal migration.

''I think we just let things plod along for a little while and gradually rebuild our communications,'' Downer said.

''We can understand why they're upset, but of course what we're trying to explain to them is that this has no implications for our recognition of Papua as a full part of the Republic of Indonesia.'' Papuan independence activists have campaigned for more than 30 years to break away from Indonesia, while a low-level rebellion has also simmered. Some of the most prominent support for the separatists is from organisations in Australia.

Human rights groups accuse Indonesia of widespread abuses there, and the Papuans who sought asylum said they feared becoming victims of genocide.

Jakarta denies such charges.

Traditionally volatile, ties between the two countries hit a low in 1999, when Australia led peacekeepers 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 tsunami of 2004.

Australia is also a major Indonesian trade partner, and diplomatic and political analysts suggest the economic and strategic ties of the neighbours are too important for the Papua issue to do serious long-term damage.


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