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Spying 'for the benefit of our friends': Australia

SYDNEY -- Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Sunday his government used intelligence material “for the benefit of our friends” and “to uphold our values” following fresh reports it spied on Indonesia.

Relations between the neighbors plunged to their lowest ebb in years in November after reports that Australia tried to tap the phones of Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, his wife and several top officials in 2009.

Jakarta responded furiously to the claims, which were based on documents leaked by U.S. intelligence fugitive Edward Snowden, recalling its ambassador and suspending cooperation with Australia on key areas including people-smuggling.

Fresh claims published in the New York Times on Sunday alleged Australian agencies spied on Indonesian officials during a trade dispute with the United States and offered to share back-room information with the Americans.

Abbott refused to confirm the report, also based on Snowden-leaked material, that the Australian Signals Directorate listened in on trade talks between the Indonesians and their U.S. lawyers and offered information gleaned to the U.S. National Security Agency.

“We never comment on operational intelligence matters, that has been the long-standing practice of all Australian governments of both political persuasions,” Abbott told reporters.

However, Abbott observed that Australia did not “use anything that we gather as part of our ordinary security and intelligence operations to the detriment of other countries.”

“We use it for the benefit of our friends. We use it to uphold our values,” he said.

“We use it to protect our citizens and the citizens of other countries, and we certainly don't use it for commercial purposes.”

The latest leak comes as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visits the Southeast Asian nation and as tensions simmer between Canberra and Jakarta over a hardline Australian military operation to turn people-smuggling boats back to Indonesia.

The top secret 2013 document allegedly obtained by the New York Times did not say which trade dispute was monitored nor name the U.S. law firm involved. Indonesia has been embroiled in trade disputes with the U.S. over its exports of clove cigarettes and shrimp in recent years.

Indonesia's Foreign Minister Mary Natalegawa has reportedly said he will raise Australia's asylum-seeker policies with Kerry, describing them as “against the values of humanity.”

Australian warships strayed into Indonesian waters on several occasions during border patrol operations, testing ties, although Canberra insists the intrusion was inadvertent.

Abbott said Sunday that Australia “deeply respects Indonesia's sovereignty.

“We want to work as close as possible with Indonesia to crack down on the scourge of people smuggling, which as we all know has cost this country dear,” he said.

Australia's conservative government has blasted Snowden, with Foreign Minister Julie Bishop lashing out at his “unprecedented treachery” and describing him as “no hero” in a speech in Washington in January.

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