Indonesia halts Australia drills as protesters call for 'war'

Protesters shout slogans during a demonstration in front of the Australian embassy in Jakarta, November 21, 2013. — Reuters pic
Protesters shout slogans during a demonstration in front of the Australian embassy in Jakarta, November 21, 2013. — Reuters pic

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JAKARTA, Nov 21 — Indonesia's military halted training with Australia as a decision to suspend cooperation due to spying claims took effect, while angry demonstrators in Jakarta declared today they were “ready for war” with Canberra.

In the Australian capital, the scandal took an embarrassing twist for Prime Minister Tony Abbott when one of his party's strategists described someone reported to be the Indonesian foreign minister as resembling “a 1970s Filipino porn star”.

The crisis — triggered by reports that Australian spies tried to tap the phones of the Indonesian president, his wife and ministers — has pushed ties between Jakarta and Canberra to their lowest level since Australia sent troops to restore order in East Timor in 1999.

Jakarta has recalled its ambassador from Canberra and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono yesterday ordered cooperation suspended in several areas, including on people-smuggling, military exercises and sharing intelligence.

Speaking just hours after Yudhoyono made his announcement, military chief Moeldoko said two current exercises with Australia were being halted.

“What's the point of joint training when they don't trust us?” said the head of the armed forces, who like many Indonesians goes by one name.

He said a joint exercise in the northern Australian city of Darwin, which had been due to end Sunday, was being halted and six F-16 fighter jets involved in it would return to Indonesia.

A joint training exercise with the Indonesian army's special forces known as Kopassus, in Lembang in West Java province, was also being suspended, he said.

The anger over the alleged spying spilled over to the public in Jakarta, where demonstrators wearing military-style uniforms protested outside the Australian embassy, pumping their fists in the air and waving the Indonesian flag.

The protesters, led by a nationalist group called “The Red and White Front”, burned a poster depicting the Australian and US flags — Washington has also been accused of spying from its Jakarta embassy.

“We're ready for war with Australia,” read one of the banners waved by the crowd of about 100 demonstrators, who used red-spray paint to daub graffiti on the Australian mission.

It followed a protest in the city of Yogyakarta late yesterday at which a group of university students burnt an Australian flag.

Indonesian hackers also vented their anger, claiming responsibility for a cyber attack on the websites of the Australian Federal Police and the Reserve Bank of Australia.

The growing row, sparked by reports in Australian media based on documents leaked by US intelligence fugitive Edward Snowden, has dealt a heavy blow to the government of the new Australian leader.

The decision to stop cooperation on people-smuggling is especially difficult for Abbott, as he desperately needs Jakarta's help to stop the influx of asylum-seekers who head to Australia via Indonesia.

And today there was more embarrassment for Abbott, when a strategist from his Liberal party was forced to apologise over a tweet about someone reported to be Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa.

“Apology demanded from Australia by a bloke who looks like a 1970's Pilipino (sic) porn star and has ethics to match,” said the tweet from Mark Textor, which has since been deleted.

Reports said he was referring to Natalegawa, who has demanded Canberra apologise over the scandal.

However, although Textor apologised, he said he was not referring to “anyone in particular”.

Yudhoyono yesterday sent a letter to Abbott demanding a clear explanation over the spying allegations, first reported by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and in the Guardian newspaper.

Abbott told parliament he had received the letter today morning and pledged the government would respond “swiftly, fully and courteously”.

The leaked documents from Snowden showed that Australia's electronic intelligence agency tracked Yudhoyono's activity on his mobile phone for 15 days in August 2009, when Labor's Kevin Rudd was prime minister.

At least one phone call was reportedly intercepted. — AFP

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