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Australia to avoid Indonesian waters

SYDNEY -- Australia on Saturday vowed there would be no further intrusions into Indonesian waters during its military-led crackdown on people-smuggling boats, after Jakarta demanded operations be suspended following repeated incursions.

Australia's new conservative government, elected in September, has re-introduced a policy of turning back asylum-seeker boats, many of which depart from Indonesian ports, when it is safe to do so.

It admitted on Friday to several inadvertent intrusions into Indonesian waters as part of Operation Sovereign Borders, but said it was sticking to its policy designed to halt the arrival of asylum-seekers on unauthorized boats.

“We will not again see an inadvertent breach of Indonesia's territorial waters, we've taken steps to ensure that that doesn't happen again,” Foreign Minister Julie Bishop told reporters in Perth on Saturday.

The incursions prompted a furious response from Jakarta, with Indonesia's Ministry for Political, Legal and Security Affairs saying they “constitute a serious matter in bilateral relations of the two countries.”

Jakarta has demanded a suspension of operations and pledged to step up navy patrols along its southern maritime borders.

“We welcome cooperation from Indonesia in patrolling the waters where these people-smuggling boats are being launched,” Bishop said, when asked about the increased Indonesian patrols.

“It is in their interests, it is in our interests to stop this evil trade,” she added.

Asylum-seekers arriving on unauthorized boats in Australia are a sensitive issue for both sides, and Canberra's Operation Sovereign Borders to stop them has been received coolly in Jakarta.

Under Australia's so-called tow-back policy, asylum-seeker boats — often wooden fishing vessels — can be pushed back toward Indonesia, a move which Jakarta had previously suggested could infringe its sovereignty.

Asked whether the government would reconsider this element of the policy after the breaches, Bishop said: “We are absolutely committed to stopping people making that hazardous journey that has already led to over 1,000 deaths at sea.

“We are determined to stop the people-smuggling trade, we are determined to stop the boats and that's what happening.”

Australia has offered an unqualified apology for the unintended incursions, but Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said Friday the government's “stop the boats” policy would remain in place.

Morrison said Saturday he had noted the response from Jakarta.

But he said: “The Australian government will continue to discuss these matters, including any response Australia may wish to provide, directly and privately with the Indonesian government through the appropriate channels.”

The Australian government has refused to detail the incursions, beyond saying they were committed by a vessel or vessels on several occasions.

But The Weekend Australian newspaper said it understood there had been five or six breaches of Indonesian waters involving two vessels from the Royal Australian Navy and one from the Australian Customs Service.

Morrison said the country's respective chiefs of navy had spoken about the incursions and the Australian government would keep Indonesia informed of progress in the joint military and customs review into the incidents.

“Our commanders have already taken immediate operational steps to ensure there is no recurrence of these incidents,” he added.

Morrison said Australia's clear policy was to not breach Indonesia's territorial waters.

“We have given a clear commitment that we will be ensuring strict compliance with this policy, so as to ensure there will be no recurrence of these events, which we deeply regret,” he said in the statement.

The revelations about the Australian naval incursions have added to tensions between the neighbors, already strained by a row over spying.

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