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Australian, Indonesian ministers meet to mend ties

Written by: Staff
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JAKARTA, May 16 (Reuters) Foreign ministers from Indonesia and Australia have met to mend ties between the two neighbours which frayed after Canberra granted visas in March to 42 asylum seekers from Indonesia's Papua province.

The ministers agreed to work to improve relations, and a meeting between Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Australian Prime Minister John Howard is being planned, Indonesian foreign ministry spokesman Yuri Thamrin said today.

He said Indonesia's Hassan Wirajuda met his Australian counterpart, Alexander Downer, late yesterday at a hotel in Singapore, where Wirajuda was transiting before heading for Canada.

''There was an agreement that both sides would ensure and try their best to nurture the relations that have been good so far,'' Thamrin said, adding that Indonesia appreciated Australia's decision to revise how it receives asylum seekers.

Australia made that change last month after the row with Indonesia. Anyone who arrives illegally by boat is now sent to immigration detention centres in the Pacific nation of Nauru or on Manus island in Papua New Guinea.

The new rules mean those found to be refugees will be accepted by a ''third country'' and not be guaranteed entry to Australia.

''When the time comes, there will be a meeting between head of governments,'' Thamrin said, without elaborating on the time and conditions for such a meeting.

Australia's decision to grant refugee status to the 42 Papuans in March angered Jakarta, which said the decision provided credence to the Papuan claims of ill-treatment and gave support to Papua's independence movement.

Indonesia withdrew its ambassador to Australia in protest at the decision. It was unclear whether Indonesia would send back the ambassador after the Singapore meeting.

The row sparked protests near the Australian embassy in Jakarta, and calls for an Indonesian boycott of Australian goods, and was aggravated by unflattering cartoons of the two nations' leaders in one another's newspapers.

Papuan independence activists have campaigned for more than 30 years to split from Indonesia, while a low-level rebellion has also simmered.

However, virtually no foreign countries support the Papuan separatists, and Australia says it recognises Indonesian sovereignty in the province.

Human rights groups accuse Jakarta of widespread abuses there, and the 42 Papuans who sought asylum said they feared becoming victims of genocide. Jakarta denies such charges.

Yudhoyono gave a guarantee to Howard shortly before Canberra's grant that the 42 were in no danger of persecution.

Last week, Australia intercepted three asylum seekers from Papua province on a small remote island off the country's northern coast and decided they could not apply for asylum.

REUTERS SI SSC1043

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