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Australia, Indonesia talks hit last-minute delay
CANBERRA, Australia (Reuters) -- On-again, off-again ministerial talks to repair Indonesia-Australia bilateral relations were postponed only minutes before they were to begin on Thursday.
Indonesia requested the postponement until later in the day, but gave no reason for the delay, said an Australian official.
The talks, originally scheduled for October, are aimed at repairing a bilateral relationship badly damaged by Australia's decision to lead a multinational force to East Timor.
A spokesman for Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said the Indonesian delegation of ministers asked that the 11:05 a.m. (0005 GMT) start of the meeting be delayed, but gave no reason for the request.
Officials and media had already begun to fill the meeting room in Australia's parliament house, crossed flags of Australia and Indonesia headed the long negotiating table and name tags of ministers from both sides had been set out.
Australia hopes the talks, already twice delayed, will pave the way for a similarly on-again, off-again visit by Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid, who faces emotional opposition in Jakarta to any restoration of relations with Canberra.
Indonesian legislators and many opinion leaders are angry at Australia for leading the U.N.-mandated force into East Timor in 1999 after pro-Jakarta militias went on a rampage of violence following a vote for independence from Indonesia.
They have also accused Australia of supporting Irian Jaya's independence push. Canberra denies the charge.
"Any further fragmentation of an Indonesian state...would be the last thing that Australia wants," Defence Minister John Moore, who will attend Thursday's meeting, told Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio.
"It's much better for Australia to have the current state of Indonesia to succeed...we are very concerned about maintaining good relations with Indonesia," Moore said.
Highest level bilateral meeting
The scheduled Canberra talks will be the highest level bilateral meeting since relations plunged after the East Timor crisis.
Australian foreign officials said they could not confirm which Indonesian ministers would attend, but said up to six were expected. An agenda of the meeting showed Foreign Minister Alwi Shihab and Trade Minister Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan were expected, along with "other Indonesian ministers."
Media reports in Jakarta have said chief economics minister Rizal Ramli, along with both foreign ministers would attend.
The forum is also seen as a chance for Canberra to allay concerns that Australia is bolstering its defences because of perceived threats from Indonesia.
Indonesian officials were briefed last week in Jakarta on Australia's new defence policy paper, unveiled on Wednesday, and Moore hopes to rebuild defence links between the two countries.
The links, which used to include a much vaunted security agreement brokered by former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating, collapsed under the weight of the East Timor issue.
But Australia's commitment to a continued presence in East Timor threatens to maintain the chill in relations.
"Clearly we've got a responsibility in East Timor until such time as the United Nations withdraw from that as an independent nation," Moore said.
"Even then, we've indicated we're prepared to train a domestic security force within East Timor, so we'll have responsibilities there as I can see for some time."
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