03/08/2005, 00.00
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Growing tensions between Indonesia and Malaysia over oil-rich islands off coastline

Oil off the eastern coast of Borneo is causing a row between the two neighbours. Governments try to negotiate a peaceful solution as the military mobilise.

Jakarta (AsiaNews) – Indonesians took to streets over a territorial dispute with Malaysia off the Borneo coast. Hundreds of people staged anti-Malaysian rallies across the country on Tuesday, to protest Malaysian claims over Ambalat, an oil-rich area off the eastern coast of Borneo Island, in the Celebes sea.

In Makassar (south Sulawesi), demonstrators burnt Malaysian flags in front a house used as a registration for migrant workers.

Tensions between the two countries had risen after Malaysia began expelling thousand of illegal Indonesian workers in early March.

In Jakarta, hundreds of people, some supporters of the Islamic-based United Development Party, staged a rally in front of the Malaysian Embassy.

In Jember, East Java, dozens of students grouped under the Islamic Student Movement, also conducted a rally, urging the government to be ready to make war if the negotiations with Malaysia failed.

Yesterday, Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono spoke on the phone to defuse tensions through diplomatic means.

Tomorrow Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid is expected in Jakarta where he will see his Indonesian counterpart, Hassan Wirayuda. The two will try to reach an agreement and bring the two countries back from the brink of war.

Indonesia has deployed four F-16 Falcon fighters in Balikpapan, East Borneo. Indonesia's army is moving 750 soldiers from Java to the area. Malaysia has also sent patrol boats, warships and air squadrons to patrol the sea off the coast of Borneo.

The standoff was sparked when Malaysia's state-owned Petronas oil company recently granted Anglo-Dutch oil firm Royal Dutch/Shell exploration rights in and around Sipadan and Ligitan Islands, an area known to Malaysians as  Block XYZ and Ambalat Block to the Indonesians.

Malaysia's claim to the area is based on a 1979 map, something Indonesia rejects on the grounds that the map is outdated.

In 2002 the International Court in The Hague (Netherlands) attributed the two disputed islands to Malaysia, but Indonesia asserted that Malaysia's territorial waters extend only 12 nautical miles from the islands (about 22 km). (MH)

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