SYDNEY Australia's government on Friday acknowledged its navy breached Indonesian territorial sovereignty several times as part of its controversial operations to stop boats carrying would-be asylum seekers from entering Australian waters.
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said he had been informed earlier this week about the "inadvertent breaches" and immediately informed the Indonesian navy.
Lieutenant General Angus Campbell, the officer in charge of "Operation Sovereign Borders", said the breaches occurred on multiple days but declined to provide further details.
"We deeply regret these events and have offered an apology," Morrison told reporters. "However the Australian government remains committed to continuing to implement the policies to stop the boats."
The number of refugees reaching Australia pales in comparison with other countries but it is a polarizing political issue that also stokes tension with neighboring Indonesia over border policies that have been criticized by the United Nations and international human rights groups.
Australia's conservative government is coming under increasing pressure over the secrecy surrounding its border immigration policies, particularly its attempts to stop boats of would-be refugees that use Indonesia as a jumping-off point.
Earlier this week, Morrison touted its success in deterring asylum seekers from arriving by boat even as he moved to further restrict access to information.
He has repeatedly declined to confirm reports that the navy had forced the return of a number of boats carrying asylum seekers to Indonesia in recent weeks.
Friday's news conference followed Australian media reports about the breaches of Indonesian sovereignty.
"The maritime border security operations being conducted by Australia are being undertaken to protect Australia's territorial sovereignty from the incursions of criminal people-smuggling ventures originating outside of Australia," Morrison said.
The U.N. refugee agency has asked for information from the government, warning that Australia could be breaking international law if it is forcing boats back to Indonesia without proper regard for refugees' safety.
Many of those trying to reach Australia pay people-smugglers in Indonesia to make the perilous journey in often unsafe boats after fleeing conflicts in places like Afghanistan, Darfur, Pakistan, Somalia and Syria.
(Reporting by Jane Wardell; Editing by Paul Tait)