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Australia, Indonesia boost ties


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Howard greets Yudhoyono in Canberra on Sunday night.
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SYDNEY, Australia (CNN) -- Australia and Indonesia have signed off on a "comprehensive partnership" that will be the framework for future bilateral ties, Australian Prime Minister John Howard said on Monday.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, visiting Australia for the first time since his election last October, called the partnership the "most significant landmark" in the two nations' sometimes-troubled relationship.

It will address economic, trade and security issues and will have a focus on the joint reconstruction of Indonesia's devastated Aceh province in the wake of the December 26 tsunami that left 220,000 Indonesians dead or missing.

Australia has already committed Aust. $1 billion ($770 million) to the Aceh rebuilding effort.

Howard and Yudhoyono met in Canberra Monday for what the Australian leader said was a discussion of "all the most important issues", including an emphasis on fighting terrorism.

Yudhoyono said the two leaders agreed that in strengthening their cooperation on combating terrorism, they needed to address the root causes of terrorism, and to promote "inter-faith dialogue."

On the defense relationship, Yudhoyono expressed his enthusiasm at what he said was improved cooperation between the Australian and Indonesian military.

Earlier, Howard cautioned against any early breakthrough on a security agreement.

"It is not something that will be concluded overnight," Howard told a Sydney radio station.

Yudhoyono had already said that while security was on the agenda, a defense pact was not.

An earlier security pact signed in 1995 collapsed in 1999, when relations between the neighbors reached a low point after Australia played a major role in the U.N.-led intervention in East Timor, following its vote for independence from Indonesia.

The two leaders embraced on Sunday night at the start of Yudhoyono's visit to Australia as the two nations mourned victims of last week's earthquake and Saturday's relief helicopter crash.

More than 220,000 people are dead or missing in Indonesia's Aceh province following the December tsunami, and up to 1,300 may have died in last Monday's magnitude 8.7 earthquake on the island of Nias, off the west coast of Sumatra.

In Saturday's tragedy, nine Australian military personnel were killed when their helicopter crashed as they were delivering medical help to quake victims on Nias.

Yudhoyono said in Canberra on Monday that Indonesia would honor the dead and two other Australians wounded in the crash by awarding them the country's Medal of Honor.

Howard earlier said Yudhoyono rang him on Sunday, before the president boarded his plane for Australia, to pass on his condolences for the victims of Saturday's helicopter crash, Reuters reported.

"I know he shares the sense of loss and grief at this very tragic incidence, and I thanked him for his expression of condolences on behalf of the Indonesian people," Howard told reporters in Sydney.

Earlier, Howard called the helicopter crash "heart-breaking" but said it would not deter Australia's relief effort in Indonesia.

Australia and Indonesia have often had a rocky relationship, especially after Australia led a U.N.-mandated intervention force into East Timor in 1999 to quell violence by pro-Indonesia militias after East Timor voted for independence from Jakarta.

Ties have improved in recent years and efforts to strengthen Australia's relationship with the world's most populous Muslim country gained momentum after Yudhoyono became Indonesia's first directly-elected president last October, Reuters reported.

Australia and Indonesian police worked closely after the 2002 Bali nightclub bombings that killed 202 people, including 88 Australians, and again after a car bomb exploded outside Australia's Jakarta embassy last September, killing 10 Indonesians.

Howard and Yudhoyono have already met each other several times, most recently at a regional tsumani response meeting in Jakarta in January.

Along with the nine killed, two other people on board the Australian navy Sea King helicopter survived Saturday's crash.

They were rescued by a second Sea King helicopter and taken back to the transport supply ship HMAS Kanimbla.

The crash occurred on Saturday at about 4.30 p.m. local time (0930 GMT) near the town of Gunung Sitoli, off the west coast of Sumatra, the defense statement said.

Reports from the scene said the helicopter was approaching the village of Amadraya and flying at a low altitude when it nose-dived into the ground and exploded in flames. The seven men and two women who died were members of the crew and the medical and supply teams on board.

The Chief of the Australian Defence Force, Lt.-Gen. Peter Cosgrove, told a press conference in Canberra on Sunday morning that despite the tragedy, Australia's relief effort in Sumatra would continue.

He said the Kanimbla, which only arrived on Saturday from Singapore after three months providing tsunami relief in the Indonesian province of Aceh, would stay on.

Gen. Cosgrove said there would be a full investigation into the causes of the crash. The Australian navy's Sea King helicopter fleet is about 30 years old.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard said Sunday the loss of nine young Australians in the Nias tragedy was "heart-breaking".

"These young Australians were on a mission of mercy and compassion, they were helping the poor people of the island of Nias in the wake of the latest earthquake there," Howard told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.


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