Jakarta: Only days after the Indonesian military (TNI) staged a massive exercise in the Natuna Island, Vietnamese coast guards appear to have freed five Vietnamese-flagged boats that had been caught by Indonesian authorities for allegedly poaching in the area.
An Indonesian maritime patrol boat had reportedly intercepted the five boats and arrested 55 Vietnamese crew members.
But the Vietnamese regained the upper hand after an unexpected aggressive intervention by Vietnamese coast guards forced the Indonesian authorities to back off, release the arrested men and return to base empty handed.
Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti confirmed the intervention by the Vietnamese but refused to go into detail.
The incident is being seen as a major test for President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, who personally observed last week’s drill in Natuna and who has in recent months initiated a policy of boosting Indonesia’s military presence in the area, including waters that have long been prone to rampant illegal fishing activities.
It also took place while dozens of Asia Pacific ministers, including Trade Minister Enggartiasto Lukita, were in Hanoi to attend the Apec Ministers Responsible for Trade meeting where they set out their commitment to strengthen economic cooperation and achieve inclusive growth.
The KM Hiu Macan 001 patrol boat belonging to the Maritime and Fisheries Resources Monitoring (PSDKP) Directorate-General at the Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Ministry caught the five boats at around 11am on Sunday.
Illegal fishing equipment such as gill nets and long lines were reportedly found in the vessels.
The five boats were being escorted to the Batam Monitoring Base for investigation, some 450km southwest of Natuna, when two Vietnamese coast guard vessels were reported to have obstructed the arrest operation.
“The [Vietnamese] coast guards entered Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone,” PSDKP director-general Eko Djalmo Asmadi said.
One of the Vietnamese vessels reportedly rammed into one of the arrested boats at 3pm.
The Indonesian sailors on board were then reportedly held hostage in exchange for the release of the Vietnamese fishermen.
When asked about the reported ramming and hostage-taking, Eko said he was still seeking confirmation of the details.
A TNI source who requested anonymity given the sensitivity of the issue said the Navy had immediately deployed several warships to the location following reports of the incident.
Navy spokesman First Adm. Gig Jonias Mozes Sipasulta, however, said he had yet to receive a full report about the incident.
Batam PSDKP taskforce head Slamet also refused to go into detail.
“You may want to contact our central office [in Jakarta] which is handling the case,” he said. — The Jakarta Post/Asia News Network