Updated: 01/17/2014 10:50 | By Agence France-Presse

Australia sorry for 'inadvertent' violations of Indonesian waters

The Australian government apologised unreservedly to Jakarta on Friday after its navy "inadvertently" violated Indonesian waters during border security operations, but vowed to pursue a hardline policy to halt asylum-seeker boats.


Australia sorry for 'inadvertent' violations of Indonesian waters

Royal Australian Navy warship HMAS Paramatta sails in front of Sydney Opera House on October 4, 2013 - by Saeed Khan

"We deeply regret these events," Immigration Minister Scott Morrison told a press conference.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop on Thursday night offered her Indonesian counterpart Marty Natalegawa "an unqualified apology on behalf of the Australian government for inadvertently entering Indonesia's territorial waters," Morrison said.

She also gave "an assurance that such a breach of Indonesian territorial waters would not re-occur". 

Morrison said Australia's embassy in Jakarta would make a formal apology Friday.

He said the government received information Wednesday that the Australians had entered Indonesian waters on several occasions.

"I should stress this occurred unintentionally and without knowledge or sanction by the Australian government," he said.

Lieutenant General Angus Campbell, who heads the military-led Operation Sovereign Borders to stop asylum-seekers arriving in Australia by sea, refused to detail the violations for "operational reasons".

He said they involved "the passage of a vessel or vessels on several occasions".

"Positional errors have been made in the movement of our vessels," he said.

"The personnel on these vessels believe they were at all times operating outside Indonesian waters."

The Australian newspaper reported the navy had been pushing back an asylum-seeker boat when they strayed into Indonesian waters.

Under the new government, asylum-seekers arriving by boat are sent to Pacific island camps for processing with no chance of settlement in Australia, while boats intercepted at sea can be turned back to Indonesia.

The policy has angered Indonesia which has suggested it could infringe its sovereignty, but there was no immediate reaction from Jakarta to the violations or apologies.

The UN refugee agency last Friday warned that Australia could be breaking international law if it pushes back to Indonesia boats carrying asylum-seekers.

Morrison insisted he would not back down and there would be no change in Australia's policy, which has been characterised by a near blackout on events at sea.

"The Australian government remains committed, (to) continuing implementing the policies to stop the boats," he said.

"We  will ensure the issues that led to the inadvertent breaches of Indonesian territorial sovereignty are rectified and do not re-occur."

The Australian also said it had confirmed the navy had started using lifeboats to return asylum-seekers to Indonesia. A boatload intercepted near Christmas Island had been transferred to a lifeboat last week, it said.

The Sydney Morning Herald detailed allegations from asylum-seekers now back in Indonesia that the navy had tricked 56 of them into boarding a lifeboat in the belief they were being taken to Christmas Island.

The paper interviewed a group of would-be refugees from South Asia who said they scuttled their wooden vessel last week in a bid to avoid going back. But after being rescued and kept for three days on a navy ship they were put into an orange lifeboat and thrown a document telling them to go back to Indonesia.

"You have enough fuel to reach land in Indonesia," said the multilingual document dated December 2013. "You do not have enough fuel to continue your voyage to Australia...

"You are responsible for your own actions... If you continue on your journey, the master and crew of your boat will face harsh penalties, which may include a jail term."

The men said they were dropped very close to Indonesia and were ashore in only three hours.

Australia's military chief of staff and the head of the border protection agency would front a review of the violations, Morrison said.

The apology came two days after Morrison announced that no asylum-seekers boats had arrived in Australia for nearly a month, with arrivals dropping by more than 80 percent since the Liberal-National government of Prime Minister Tony Abbott won power in September.

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