Subject: SMH: Airspace protest reveals Indon-Australia tensions

Sydney Morning Herald 24/02/2000

Airspace protest reveals tensions

By LINDSAY MURDOCH, Herald Correspondent in Jakarta, and agencies

The Australian Government yesterday denied Indonesian claims that Australian aircraft had intruded into the country's airspace, revealing continuing tensions between the two countries.

Indonesia's Foreign Affairs Ministry sent a diplomatic note to the Australian embassy on Tuesday protesting against the alleged intrusion over the Ambon island chain on November 19 and 20 last year.

A ministry spokesman, Mr Sulaiman Abdulmanan, said such an intrusion could "trigger a backlash" at a time when Indonesia intended to mend fences with Australia.

The official Antara news agency, which broke the news of the protest note, said the flight had been detected by the Pattimura Air Base Command in Ambon. It was at a time of widespread fighting between Christian and Muslim groups in the islands.

The second incursion, allegedly by a C-130 Hercules with call sign Ausy-1020, occurred the following afternoon over North Maluku.

The Australian embassy said that when alleged sightings of Australian aircraft over Indonesia were first raised last year a detailed investigation found that no Australian aircraft was in the area at the time.

The embassy said there was only one RAAF plane in Indonesian airspace between November 19 and 20, and that aircraft was en-route to Brunei.

The plane had diplomatic clearance and did not overfly Ambon, the embassy said. Referring to the alleged call sign "Ausy-1020", it said that Australian military aircraft call signs had only three numbers.

"Whenever Australian Government aircraft enter Indonesian airspace they do so in strict accordance with international law or with the direct authority of the Indonesian Government," the embassy said.

The Indonesian protest follows comments by Indonesia's Defence Minister, Dr Juwono Sudarsono, that there was "strong suspicion" in Jakarta that Australian forces went into East Timor to support separatist guerillas before the official September 20 landing by Interfet.

And it comes less than a week after the Foreign Minister, Mr Alwi Shihab, indicated a planned trip to Australia by President Abdurrahman Wahid may not take place until July, four months later than the first mooted date of March.

Outstanding issues would need to be resolved before the trip or there might be a backlash from ordinary people, Mr Sulaiman said.

"If the bilateral relationship is in a condition of coolness - if there is a problem like air violations - maybe it would not be a problem for Gus Dur [Wahid's popular name] but it may be a problem for the people and he has to pay attention to them because we are trying to build a democratic country," Mr Sulaiman told AAP.

Asked why the alleged incursion was not formally raised at the time, he said it was thought best not to add to the problems between the countries.

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