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Indonesia Returns Ambassador to Australia Following Asylum Dispute


Indonesia is sending its ambassador back to Australia, after two months of tension over Canberra's decision to offer protection for asylum-seekers from Papua. The move may signal an attempt to smooth over the dispute between the two countries, as their leaders prepare to meet later this month.

Relations between the two countries have been strained since March, when Australia granted temporary protection visas to 42 asylum-seekers from Indonesia's Papua province.

Indonesian Ambassador Hamzah Thayeb was recalled during the diplomatic standoff, but the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Friday he will return to his post in the Australian capital in the next two days.

The Papuans have accused Indonesia of human rights abuses and genocide in the province. Jakarta denies those claims. Activists have called for independence for decades, and there were violent clashes between police and Papuan protesters earlier this year.

Demonstrators killed four Indonesian security personnel and more than a dozen people, including demonstrators and police, were injured in one incident in March.

Ministry spokesman Desra Percaya says the decision to return Thayeb to his office in Australia is meant to help prepare for a meeting between the countries' leaders later this month.

"It is just logical that we increase the level of the meeting between President [Susilo Bambang] Yudhoyono and [Australian] Prime Minister John Howard," Percaya said. "His return is precisely to facilitate the imminent arrival of Prime Minister John Howard on the 26th of June on Batam Island."

The Australian government has proposed tougher immigration laws since the countries' disagreement. The new rules will require asylum-seekers coming to the country by boat, without proper visas, to be sent to an offshore detention center. The proposal also makes it more difficult for such people to obtain protection visas.

Indonesia specifically objected to the speed with which the Papuans were granted visas, saying the case amounted to special treatment and indicated support for the Papuan independence movement.

The decision to send Thayeb back to his post follows a meeting between the Indonesian and Australian foreign ministers. During the meeting, the Australian government said it would consider signing an agreement that would support Indonesia's sovereignty over Papua province.

But Percaya says it is too early to count on such an agreement, and adds that the two countries' presidents will not likely discuss Papua during their meeting.

"I could say for the time being we are moving on the right track, and we understand that there remains issues to be discussed further, to be resolved," he said. "But, however, there is an also urgent need for both countries to establish stable relations."

The Batam summit meeting will include officials from various ministries in both countries. A new security agreement between the nations is on the agenda.

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