How Australia trespassed into Indonesia's waters, had wrong information
IAN McPHEDRAN national defence writer
News Limited Network
January 18, 2014 12:00AM
AUSTRALIAN Navy and Customs vessels trespassed several kilometres into Indonesian waters up to seven times in the past month after ships were given incorrect information by senior border protection officers in Canberra.
A major brawl has broken out between Border Protection Command and the Navy over who was responsible for the debacle under the government's "stop the boats'' policy.
Navy and Customs vessels are tasked by a Joint Task Force working for Operation Sovereign Borders, commanded by Lieutenant General Angus Campbell.
Navy has no command and control role with the vessels.
"I and I am sure all+ those involved in the conduct of Operation Sovereign Borders regret any affront to Indonesia these events may have occurred,'' General Campbell said yesterday.
News Corp Australia has been told that the operational boundaries of the so-called "manoeuvre boxes'' that the vessels operated in were supposed to meet all requirements of international law including respect for a nation's 12-nautical mile territorial limit.
The crews of the vessels were operating inside the "box'' at the time of the incursions that began on December 7.
It is understood that at least five and possibly seven illegal entries took place before the error was discovered on Wednesday.
The frigate HMAS Stuart crossed the line once and a Customs vessel twice and other ships' logs are being examined to identify further incursions.
"It comes down to an error inside Border Protection Command and that is the focus of the investigation.'' a well placed source said.
"This is a command and control issue inside Operation Sovereign Borders.''
The boxes are drawn in Canberra but each vessel is equipped with sophisticated global positioning systems that should have warned them of a potential incursion.
A high level review to be headed by a senior naval officer will be appointed to get to the bottom of the matter.
The Abbott Government was forced to issue a grovelling apology to Indonesia for "inadvertently'' breaching its sovereignty during the tow-back and turn around phase of the "stop the boats push''.
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison revealed the formal apology yesterday. It was issued by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop to her Indonesian counterpart Marty Natalegawa.
Navy chief Vice-Admiral Ray Griggs also phoned his Indonesian counterpart to explain the mistake.
"This was done unintentionally and without knowledge or sanction by the Australian government,'' Mr Morrison said.
A spokesman for Indonesia's Co-ordinating Minister for Politics, Security and Law, Djoko Suyanto said the incident could have implications for Australia's relationship with Jakarta.
"If what the Australian navy did is true, that would only worsen the Indonesia-Australia relationship,'' Agus Barnas he said.
"It could hamper the normalisation of the Indonesia-Australia relationship.''
Despite the cloak of secrecy applied by Mr Morrison and General Campbell, News Corp Australia can reveal that the Abbott Government's "turn/tow back strategy'' was stepped up on December 19.
So far under the new strategy at least five vessels have been turned around or towed back including at least two that were broken down and unseaworthy.
Many others have set off from Indonesian ports but have turned back due to bad weather.
One of Mr Abbott's first gestures as prime minister was to assure Indonesian President Susilio Bambang Yudhoyono that his nation's sovereignty would be respected by Australia.
"I do want to stress publicly, as well as privately, Bapak President, Australia's total respect for Indonesia's sovereignty, total respect for Indonesia's territorial integrity,'' Mr Abbott said during his first visit to Jakarta.
Opposition leader Bill Shorten slammed Mr Morrison for seeking to blame the navy for the government's failed policy.
"These service men and women do an extremely tough job under very difficult circumstances and they shouldn't be blamed for the failings of the Abbott government and its policies,'' Mr Shorten said.
Australian Greens immigration spokeswoman Senator Sarah Hanson-Young said the government could not be trusted because two days ago the minister said this type of breach of sovereignty would never occur.
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