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SBY hits fight against people smuggling in retaliation over eavesdropping

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono greeted his recalled Ambassador to Australia Nadjib Riphat Kesoema at the Presidential office in Jakarta. EPA/Abror Rizki

Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has dramatically escalated the crisis with Australia by suspending joint patrols to combat people smuggling and other military co-operation and intelligence sharing.

The president announced he was writing to Prime Minister Abbott “demanding Australia’s official stance and explanation on the tapping incident, in order to get a response”. The 2009 tapping targeted the mobile phones of Yudhoyono, his wife and other senior public figures.

Yudhoyono also wants a new “code of conduct” to govern relations in various areas including co-operation on people smuggling.

Indonesia has pulled out of a joint air exercise in the Northern Territory which was underway.

As the rift deepened dangerously, Abbott hastily went into Parliament tonight to again express “deep and sincere regret about the embarrassment to the President and to Indonesia that’s been caused by recent media reporting”. He promised to respond to the President’s letter “swiftly, fully and courteously”.

But he held to his line of offering no explanation or apology for the tapping, which came to light in material obtained by Edward Snowden, former contractor to the US National Security Agency.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa claimed the Australian intelligence community had “run amok”. “The ball is very much in Australia’s court,” he said. Australia must take concrete steps to repair the “almost irreparable” damage done.

The President’s reference at co-operation on people smuggling underlines how strongly Indonesia wants to register its displeasure. It is very aware of the top priority the Abbott government gives to stopping the boats. The issue has been a source of tension between the two countries; this week the military head of Operation Sovereign Borders, Angus Campbell, admitted that the plan to buy Indonesian fishing boats was not proceeding at the moment because of Indonesian disapproval.

After consultations with his ministers about retaliatory action, President Yudhoyono told a news conference that “the people smuggling issue has troubled both Indonesia and Australia, so we have co-ordinated … patrols in the ocean, but until this issue is all clear, it will be stopped”.

He said Indonesia was “waiting for the clear explanation and for Australia to take responsibility over the tapping”.

He was halting exchange of information and intelligence, and stopping for the time being joint training programs between the Australian and Indonesian militaries. He had also postponed co-ordinated military operations.

“It is not possible that we can continue our co-operation when we are still uncertain that there is no spying towards us, spying towards our soldiers,” Yudhoyono said.

He said there needed to be a “new protocol, a code of conduct, of guiding principles pertaining to the co-operation between our two countries in various sectors”. These included joint training between armies and other military, co-operation against the threat of people smuggling and co operation in the exchange of information.

“This code of conduct will be legally binding, it will be clear and it must be implemented.”

The president said the Indonesian people “are very annoyed, and they’re very angry” over what had happened. The surveillance would impact on the friendship between the two countries, when co-operation had been going very well.

Abbott told Parliament he was encouraged by the President’s remarks about the strength of the relationship “although obviously there are very serious issues which do need to be worked through in the near future between us”.

“As always, I am absolutely committed to building the closest possible relationship with Indonesia, because that is overwhelmingly in the interests of both our countries.”

Opposition leader Bill Shorten said Labor would support the government in its efforts to rebuild relations and declared this a “Team Australia moment”.

The government and opposition must continue to unite to repair the relationship in a timely way, he said.

With a great deal of uncertainty hanging over how the row will play out over coming days Foreign Minister Julie Bishop pulled out of scheduled appearances on the ABC’s 7.30 tomorrow night and Q&A on Monday.

Listen to Andrew Wilkie on the Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast, available below, by rss and on iTunes.

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