Asia

Australia disciplines captains for Indonesia incursions

File photo: Australian customs officials and navy personnel escort asylum-seekers onto Christmas Island after they were rescued from a crowded boat that had foundered at sea, 21 August 2013 Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Asylum seekers often head for Christmas Island, which is part of Australia, via Indonesia

An Australian navy captain has been removed from his command for violating Indonesia's territorial waters.

Another commanding officer had been "administratively sanctioned" and five more would be given counselling, a defence department statement said.

The incursions took place as the navy took part in border operations under a policy aimed at preventing asylum seekers reaching Australian shores.

Australia has apologised, saying the incursions took place "inadvertently".

"The Chief of Navy accepts that none of the commanding officers involved deliberately contravened orders not to enter Indonesian territorial waters," a statement said.

"Notwithstanding, there were, in the Chief of Navy's view, lapses in professional conduct that required action to be taken."

In each case, there had been a "clear operational direction not to proceed within 12 nautical miles from the Indonesian archipelagic baseline".

The positioning of each ship was considered and each commanding officer's perspective was heard, the statement said.

The government has not revealed details of the incidents, but they are believed to have taken place as navy vessels forced Australia-bound boats carrying asylum seekers back to Indonesia, under a new policy called Operation Sovereign Borders.

Indonesia has described the policy as unhelpful and the issue has strained ties between the two economic allies.

Indonesia serves as a transit point for people smugglers, who ferry asylum seekers to Christmas Island, the closest part of Australian territory, on rickety and over-crowded boats. Many people have died making the journey.

The Australian government says its tough new policy is successfully deterring asylum boats, with no new arrivals since December.

Rights groups have accused Australia of shirking its international obligations, however.

Its asylum policy is also in the spotlight after a young Iranian man died in violence at an Australian immigration detention centre in Papua New Guinea in February.

Several inquiries into who caused the young man's death are under way.

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