Australian captain loses command after Indonesia incursions

SYDNEY (AFP) - An Australian naval captain has been relieved of his command after his vessel was involved in an incursion into Indonesian waters while on border protection duty, the defence ministry said on Thursday.

Six incursions took place during Australia's military-led Operation Sovereign Borders to deter asylum-seeker boats in December and January, leading Canberra to apologise to Jakarta and set up an inquiry.

The Department of Defence said navy chief Vice Admiral Ray Griggs had made a number of decisions relating to the seven commanding officers involved, noting that more than one ship was involved in each incursion.

"The Chief of Navy will remove one Commanding Officer from his command and another will be administratively sanctioned," a Department of Defence statement said. "The remaining Commanding Officers will be formally or informally counselled."

Full details of the incidents have not been released but local media have reported the incursions took place when forcing boats carrying asylum-seekers back to Indonesia.

An internal inquiry released in February found the incursions were inadvertent and due to incorrect calculation of territorial boundaries.

Vice Admiral Griggs said he accepted that none of the commanding officers deliberately breached directions to stay outside Indonesia's 12-nautical-mile zone. But there were lapses in professional conduct that required action.

"Each of the commanding officers conducted these activities with the best of intent," he said. "However, I expect nothing but the highest standards of those in command.

"These actions are not punitive in nature but are aimed solely at upholding the professional standards that the Royal Australian Navy is renowned for and that are necessary for it to undertake its mission," he added. None of the officers or their ships were identified.

Asylum-seekers arriving on unauthorised boats in Australia, often via Indonesia, are a sensitive issue for both countries. Under the Australian government's hardline policies, not only are asylum-seekers arriving by boat sent to Pacific island camps for processing with no chance of settlement in Australia, but boats intercepted at sea can be turned back to Indonesia.

The policy does, however, appear to be working, with no boat arrivals since December. The defence ministry admitted in February that the incursions had resulted in a "go slow" in military ties with Indonesia.