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The Abbott government has admitted Australia breached Indonesian territorial waters during operations to deter asylum seeker boats.
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Poor Indonesian relations Abbott's opportunity?
The Abbott government might be using strained relations with Indonesia to push its boat policy, says Fairfax Media's Jakarta corespondent Michael Bachelard.
Speaking at a press conference in Canberra, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison conceded this was against the Australian government's own policy.
At least one Australian border protection boat "inadvertently" entered Indonesian territorial waters - breaching Indonesia's sovereignty - several times.
"I should stress that this occurred unintentionally and without knowledge or sanction by the Australian government," Mr Morrison said.
Mr Morrison, who said he was notified of the breaches on Wednesday, described the incidents as an operational failure.
He said Australia has informed Indonesia and apologised.
Despite the government's admission that it had entered Indonesian waters, the Immigration Minister said this could not be taken as confirmation Australia was turning back boats.
"It's not for me to confirm or not confirm your assumptions," he said. "What I can say is the Australian government's policies to stop the boats are working and they will continue."
Video: Morrison admits naval breach
The apology to Indonesia comes as Fairfax Media revealed that Australia has for the first time used a lifeboat to force asylum seekers back to Indonesia.
The would-be refugees say they were tricked into getting into a powered lifeboat and then left close to the Indonesian shore.
Speaking to reporters on Friday, Operation Sovereign Borders Commander Angus Campbell said Australian authorities realised the breach after looking at a routine vessel report.
Lieutenant General Campbell said Australian personnel believed they had been operating in Australian waters.
"This is a very serious matter," he said.
Lieutenant General Campbell said he had ordered a review into the mistake.
He said he believed the breach occurred on "more than one day" but would not provide more detail on the timing, saying the review needed to look at the issue "without prejudice".
"I'm sure all those involved in the conduct of Operation Sovereign Borders regret any affront to Indonesia these events may have caused," he said, telling reporters in Canberra that the mistake would never happen again.
Lieutenant General Campbell suggested - but did not confirm - that more than one boat had been involved in the breaches. He would not say when the breaches occurred.
When asked to clarify how many boats were responsible, Lieutenant General Campbell talked about the "passage of a vessel or vessels on several occasions".
When asked why he was confident the mistake would not happen again, Lieutenant General Campbell said that he had put in place ''interim'' measures until the review was finished.
''I'm going to just simply say that I am very comfortable there are active controls to ensure that our vessels do not cause such mistakes or have such mistakes in future,'' he said.
Mr Morrison said that Australia's navy chief Ray Griggs phoned his Indonesian counterpart late on Thursday to tell him about the breach and apologise.
Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop has also tried to speak to Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, to offer an "unqualified apology".
"This has occurred, it's regrettable and we've made the appropriate apologies," Mr Morrison said.
Mr Morrison also described the breach as a "setback" for Operation Sovereign Borders.
"We don't let this setback get in the way of the job we were elected to do which is to stop the boats. So that job continues with full steam ahead and full commitment," he said.
Mr Morrison said he had offered a private briefing to opposition immigration spokesman Richard Marles and the Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, in which he would provide full details of what Australia was doing in its ''maritime'' activities.
Mr Morrison said Mr Shorten had declined the offer, but a spokesman for the Opposition Leader later told Fairfax Media that Mr Shorten has never declined it and would be attending the meeting with Mr Marles in February.
Mr Shorten described the breach of Indonesia's waters as "incredibly serious".
"On the same day that Scott Morrison told Australians ‘our activities and assets have never and will never violate the sovereign territory of another country’, he was briefed that that was exactly what had happened," he said.
"It’s unbelievably poor form from Scott Morrison to blame our service men and women for trying to implement his border protection policy."
Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young criticised the government’s border protection as being ‘‘utter chaos’’ that has caught asylum seekers in the middle.
“Two days ago the minister clearly said that this would not happen. It now has and there is no way that we can trust Scott Morrison when he says it won’t happen again,” Senator Hanson-Young said.
“The minister is begging for forgiveness while carrying on with a policy that was always going to lead to this type of disaster.”
With Jonathan Swan