Anti-terror ties focus of Rice's Indonesia visit


  • World
  • Monday, 13 Mar 2006

By Achmad Sukarsono

JAKARTA (Reuters) - Cooperation in the war against terrorism will be the focus of Condoleezza Rice's first visit to Indonesia as U.S. secretary of state this week, but the two sides will also be looking to strengthen business and political ties. 

Despite differences over Middle East policy and sporadic, but large, anti-American demonstrations in Indonesia, Jakarta and Washington have generally good relations, and the southeast Asian nation is considered a close ally in U.S. anti-terrorism efforts. 

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice seen during a joint news conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov after their meeting at the State Department in Washington in this March 7, 2006 file photo. (REUTERS/Yuri Gripas)

One sticking point is Jakarta's repeated requests to at least get direct access to Indonesian militant Hambali, in American hands since 2003, and ideally have him sent back to Indonesia. 

"In the talks, Indonesia should argue that, without our help, the spectre of terror is difficult to beat and more cooperation is needed," said Hariyadi Wirawan, head of the international relations department at the University of Indonesia. 

"There is lip service and there is reality. The fact is the teamwork is not balanced. The U.S. prefers taking control of key operations (rather) than letting us handle the matter." 

Indonesia has long sought custody of Hambali -- an Islamic preacher believed to be the mastermind behind bombings on the island of Bali in 2002 which killed 202 people -- to try him and aid in other prosecutions of terrorist suspects. 

Rice begins her schedule on Tuesday. She will meet Indonesian officials including President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a former general with U.S. training who won Indonesia's first direct presidential election in 2004 on a strong security platform. 

OIL BLOCK DISPUTE 

The fight against bird flu, which has killed at least 22 people in Indonesia, and improving the Indonesian business climate for foreign investors will figure on the agenda. 

She can also expect media questions about whether Washington is overlooking human rights violations by Jakarta. 

Analysts say Rice may press Jakarta to resolve a row between U.S. firm Exxon Mobil Corp. and Indonesian state oil firm Pertamina over the lucrative Cepu oil block. 

The long-running Cepu dispute has dented Indonesia's foreign investment outlook and sparked nationalist passions. 

Oil experts say the U.S. oil giant has better expertise and efficiency to get the most out of the oil field, which could boost Indonesia's lagging crude output by a fifth. 

Rice is also expected to meet Islamic scholars in the world's most populous Muslim nation. 

"There is a perception among Muslims that the U.S. sees Islam as a threat ... which sparks suspicion between one another. I hope the visit can repair ties and create a condition of mutual respect," said Masdar Mas'udi, deputy chairman of the 40-million strong Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia's top mainstream Muslim group. 

The end of autocratic president Suharto's 32-year rule in 1998 amid social unrest allowed democracy to flourish in Indonesia, the world's fourth most populous nation. 

Against this backdrop, Indonesia has brought cases against some 200 terrorist suspects in recent years in open proceedings. 

But critics say progress on reforming the military and police -- accused of numerous rights violations both before and after Suharto -- has been too slow. Some argue Washington was too hasty in resuming defence ties after Yudhoyono took office. 

"Pumping aid to an unreformed Indonesian military would serve only to encourage further rights abuses and undermine civilian governance," said Lisa Misol of the New York-based group Human Rights Watch. 

(Additional reporting by Sue Pleming in Washington and Diyan Jari in Jakarta) 

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