Fri, 08 Dec 2000

Australia and RI in talks to repair ties

CANBERRA (Reuters): Indonesia and Australia began two days of long-delayed ministerial talks here on Thursday aimed at repairing a bilateral relationship badly damaged by Australia's decision to lead a multinational force to East Timor.

The meeting got underway nearly five hours behind schedule after a last-minute postponement at Indonesia's request, but Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer said the tone of the first session was friendly and constructive.

"I'm pleased with the way the meeting is developing so far," Downer told reporters during a break in the meeting.

Australia hopes the talks, originally scheduled for October, will pave the way for an on-again, off-again visit by Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid, who faces emotional opposition in Jakarta to any restoration of relations with Canberra.

Indonesian legislators and many opinion leaders are angry at Australia for leading the UN-mandated force into East Timor in 1999 after pro-Jakarta militias went on a rampage of violence following a vote for independence from Indonesia.

They have also accused Australia of supporting Irian Jaya's independence push. Canberra used the meeting to deny the charge.

"We have reaffirmed to the Indonesians our commitment to Indonesia's territorial integrity," Downer said.

"We've made the point that we strongly support Irian Jaya remaining part of Indonesia, we don't give any comfort to those who seek independence of Irian Jaya."

The Canberra talks are the highest level bilateral meeting since relations plunged after the East Timor crisis.

The Indonesian delegation includes foreign minister Alwi Shihab, trade and industry minister Luhut Pandjaitan, education minister Yahya Muhaimin, agriculture and forestry minister Bungaran Saragih and maritime and fisheries minister Sarwono Kusumaatmadja, according to an embassy official.

Downer leads the 10-member Australian delegation, which also includes trade minister Mark Vaile, treasurer Peter Costello, immigration minister Philip Ruddock, industry minister Nick Minchin and agriculture minister Warren Truss.

Indonesian officials were briefed last week in Jakarta on Australia's new defense policy paper, unveiled on Wednesday, and Canberra hopes to rebuild bilateral defense links.