Subject: Downer says jet fighter incident won't escalate

Downer says jet fighter incident won't escalate

SYDNEY, April 30 (Reuters) - Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said on Sunday concern raised with Jakarta after an armed Indonesian fighter plane flew within metres of Australian military aircraft would not be taken further.

``There was an incident, our ambassador's raised it with the Indonesians and we will just let it pass,'' Downer said.

Four unarmed Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) F-18 fighters and a B-707 tanker plane were en route from Darwin to Singapore on Wednesday when they were intercepted by two Indonesian F5s in international airspace off the Indonesian province of West Timor.

After the interception, the Australian planes flew on across Indonesia, for which they had diplomatic clearance.

The Australian embassy in Jakarta issued a statement on Saturday, saying the incident raised ``serious air safety concerns.''

Downer, speaking on Network Nine's ``Sunday'' programme, said the incident could have been the result of a communication problem.

``I think it's possible that the Indonesians at the airbase weren't aware of the clearances that had been given but I just don't know,'' Downer said of the interception.

Downer said the Australian pilots had been forced to use hand signals to communicate with the Indonesian pilots. He said one of the F5 aircraft flew ``within 20 feet'' (six metres) of one of the Australian aircraft.

``As I understand it, what happened was the two aircraft came up to meet with the five Australian aircraft and flew alongside them,'' he said.

``The Indonesians say that they had endeavoured to communicate by radio and were unable to do so, so there were some communications between the Australian F-18 pilots and the Indonesian F-5 pilots through hand signals. Then the F-5 aircraft left.

The incident came at a time of heightened tensions between Australia and Indonesia. Relations between the two countries suffered when Australia led a U.N. force into East Timor last year after the territory voted for independence from Indonesia.

Last week, President Wahid indefinitely postponed a visit to Australia, prompting Australian Prime Minister John Howard to say that bilateral relations might never fully recover.

But Wahid later proposed a three-way summit between himself, Howard and East Timor's Xanana Gusmao -- and Downer was full of praise on Sunday for the Indonesian leader.

``In general terms I have to say we've been very impressed with Mr Wahid's leadership,'' Downer said.

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