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Indonesia, Australia announce "new era" after spate of tragedies
CANBERRA (AFP) Apr 04, 2005
Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono hailed a "new era" of relations with Australia here on Monday as a spate of shared tragedies brought the once-rival neighboring nations closer together.

Following talks with Prime Minister John Howard, Yudhoyono announced that he would press his fellow Southeast Asian leaders to accept Australia into Asian-bloc talks later this year.

Yudhoyono and Howard also issued a joint declaration on a "comprehensive partnership" under which they agreed to negotiate a new security agreement to protect both countries and to boost air and maritime cooperation.

The Australia-Indonesia summit came two days after nine Australian navy and airforce personnel died in a helicopter crash while on a humanitarian mission to Indonesian villages stricken by a powerful earthquake last week.

Yudhoyono said he was "utterly devastated" by the accident and that all those travelling on the Sea King chopper, including two soldiers who were injured, would receive "medals of honour".

Australia also played the leading role in rushing aid to Indonesia following the devastating December 26 earthquake and tsunami which killed more than 220,000 Indonesians, pledging a billion dollars (760 million US) in assistance.

Prior to the tsunami, the two governments worked closely to track down Islamic militants behind a string of bombings, the worst of which in Bali in 2002 killed 202 people, 88 of them Australian.

Howard said these shared tragedies had contributed to a "very strong personal commitment" between himself and Yudhoyono to strengthen the often shaky relationship between the countries.

"Tragedy has brought our two countries together in recent months but before the terrible tsunami tragedy overwhelmed the province of Aceh, there had already been many positive developments in the relationship of our two countries," Howard said.

"We are both committed to the strengthening of the partnership and the friendship between our two countries," he said.

Yudhoyono echoed the desire to improve ties between the world's most populous Muslim-majority nation and Australia, often seen as an outsider in Asia.

"I strongly hope that my visit here will affirm the importance of Australia to Indonesia and will help usher in a new era of bilateral relations," Yudhoyono said.

In a sign of his enthusiasm for the relationship, the Indonesian leader vowed to back Australia's bid to be accepted into the East Asia Summit to be held in Malaysia in December.

"I stressed the importance of Australia's close engagement with the region, and I reiterated Indonesia's support for Australia to join the East Asia Summit this year," Yudhoyono said.

Yudhoyono's stance puts him at odds with some of his Asian counterparts, including Malaysia, whose prime minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, is due here later this week.

Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak recently called for Australia to be excluded from the summit aimed at building cooperation between the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations and Japan, South Korea and China as part of a move towards an East Asian Community.

The warm declarations emerging from Yudhoyono's visit were a stark contrast with the tenor of relations in the past, especially when tensions flared over Australian military involvement in the UN-backed process of gaining independence for the former Indonesian province of East Timor in 1999.

At a joint press conference, Howard said he and Yudhoyono had signed an agreement under which Canberra pledged not to support the further break-up of Indonesia by separatist groups.

Under the joint declaration, Australia and Indonesia committed to "forge closer partnerships between our police forces, immigration and customs officials and security and intelligence agencies".

They also agreed to cooperate more fully in combating terrorism, people smuggling and the drugs trade.

Yudhoyono, who replaced Megawati Sukarnoputri after elections in 2004, said Indonesia-Australia ties had strengthened recently.

"I am convinced we can take this friendship between Indonesia and Australia far, very far, for we now live in geopolitical and geoeconomic environments that are different from the ones of the previous decades," Yudhoyono said.

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