SYDNEY - Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott tried Thursday to play down allegations of bullying Indonesia as a diplomatic rift deepened between the uneasy neighbors over Jakarta's planned executions of two Australian drug smugglers.
Australia has been pursuing an 11th-hour campaign to save Myuran Sukumaran, 33, and Andrew Chan, 31, convicted in 2005 as the ringleaders of the "Bali Nine'' plot to smuggle heroin out of Indonesia.
Abbott drew strong criticism from Jakarta on Wednesday for linking his pleas for clemency for the pair to Australia's aid to Indonesia after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
In a harsh rebuke, Indonesian Foreign Ministry spokesman Armanatha Nasir warned that threats are not part of diplomatic language and no one responds well to threats.''
Abbott, under pressure after a recent internal party challenge, said Thursday that he was referring to "the obvious strength of the relationship'' between the two countries.
"I was pointing out the depth of the friendship between Australia and Indonesia and the fact that Australia has been there for Indonesia when Indonesia has been in difficulty,'' Abbott told reporters in Tasmania state.
Asked whether his earlier comments were intended as a threat, Abbott said they were intended as a reminder of that friendship.
On Wednesday, Abbott said Australia would feel "grievously let down'' if the executions proceeded despite the roughly A$1 billion in assistance it gave after the 2004 disaster in Indonesia's Aceh province that left hundreds of thousands dead.
Indonesia postponed on Tuesday the transfer of Sukumaran, Chan and three other death-row inmates to another prison for execution because of what authorities said were medical concerns and families' requests for more time with the prisoners.
Abbott and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon have appealed to Indonesia, which resumed capital punishment in 2013 after a five-year gap, not to execute prisoners for drug crimes.
Also facing execution in Indonesia for drug offenses are citizens of Brazil, France, Ghana, Indonesia, Nigeria and the Philippines.
Australia and Indonesia have a long history of diplomatic tension, which has periodically complicated cooperation on issues such as human smuggling.
Indonesia recalled its envoy and froze military and intelligence cooperation in 2013 after reports that Canberra had spied on top Indonesian officials, including former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's wife.
Full diplomatic cooperation was restored last May, but Australia has foreshadowed withdrawing its ambassador from Jakarta if the executions go ahead.