Sat, 05 Jul 2003

Air Force threatens 'sanctions' against U.S. intruders

Tiarma Siboro, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

The Indonesian Air Force plans to seek clarification from the U.S. government regarding the alleged unauthorized entry of five F-18 Hornet jets into the country's airspace over the Java Sea.

National Air Defense commander Rear Marshall Wresniwiro said on Friday that the Indonesian Air Force was coordinating with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta to investigate the incident.

Wresniwiro said the investigation was aimed at determining if the aircraft had obtained clearance from the Indonesian authorities.

He warned that the Air Force would take whatever action was necessary, or even impose "sanctions", should the investigation find that the U.S. aircraft had violated Indonesian airspace. He declined to specify what form such "sanctions" might take.

The incident occurred when five U.S. F-18 jets performed maneuvers for more than two hours over Bawean island in the Java Sea.

The Air Force then deployed F-16 fighters to intercept the five U.S. jets.

During the interception, the Indonesian pilots tried to contact the F-18s pilots, who initially refused to break radio silence.

"Both sides were close to firing on each other before the F-18 pilots responded by saying that they were from the U.S. Navy," Wresniwiro told a press conference at air defense command headquarters in East Jakarta.

The Air Force said that the presence of the Hornets was detected by radar at Surabaya's Juanda air force base.

However, Wresniwiro admitted that a U.S. naval officer had told the Indonesian Air Force that "they had secured permission to enter Indonesian airspace while escorting a U.S. aircraft carrier, two frigates and a tanker."

Wresniwiro said that "the request had arrived too late at air defense command."

"There are rules for obtaining permission for foreign aircraft and warships to enter Indonesian territory as they have to ask permission from the Indonesian Military's Strategic Intelligence Agency (Bais), Indonesian Military Headquarters, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and air defense headquarters.

"Therefore, such requests have to be made months before they arrive here," he said.

Asked whether the U.S. Navy had clarified the intended destination of its vessels, Wresniwiro simply said: "They are traveling to the eastern zone."

Speculation has been rife that the planes were on their way to Iraq.

Wresniwiro said that the Indonesian Air Force had ordered the planes to land on Lombok island, West Nusa Tenggara. However, no information was forthcoming on whether this order was obeyed.

"Based on our maritime law, both foreign warships and aircraft entering our territory may face sanctions, ranging from being observed or expelled, or even being prosecuted under Indonesian law," he said.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has yet to comment on the incident, saying it was still seeking clarification on the issue.

A U.S. embassy spokesman told Agence France-Presse that he would seek more information about the report.