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Fears For Australian Journalists and Diplomats In Indonesian Plane Crash

Nine Australians were passengers on a Garuda flight that crashed at around 11am at Yogyakarta airport today.

According to Sky News, 5 of the Australians are accounted for.

A Fairfax journalist, Cynthia Banham, has been rescued from the plane and is undergoing surgery at an air force hospital near the airport.

The Australians were journalists and diplomatic staff travelling to Indonesia to cover a visit by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer. Mr. Downer was travelling separately in a VIP plane.

The Prime Minister, John Howard, speaking at a press conference in Melbourne, warned of bad news to come as the casualty count is determined. The plane exploded in flames following its landing. There is no suggestion of terrorism.

  • Listen to Howard’s Press Conference (14m)

Transcript of Prime Minister John Howard’s press conference at the Commonwealth Parliament Offices, Melbourne.

Well ladies and gentlemen I have called this news conference to provide as much information as I properly can regarding the tragedy which has occurred in Yogyakarta. As you know a Garuda 737-400 crashed on landing and burst into flames.

The Indonesian authorities have confirmed that some 49 people have died. The best advice I have at present is that up to 10 Australians were on board the aircraft. They were a mixture of journalists and other media personnel and DFAT officials, AFP and Defence personnel. It’s clear from reports and from statements made by the individual agencies and from advice I have received that quite a number of those have survived. But given the severity of the crash and the following fire and the like, it’s a situation where we should be prepared for bad news in relation to at least some of the Australians on board the aircraft.

It’s obviously a great tragedy for all concerned including, of course, the many Indonesians on board the aircraft who appear to have lost their lives. Our immediate focus, of course, is to properly confirm and identify the situation regarding the Australians who were on the aircraft and it’s important that before anything is said about individuals that we be absolutely certain that that information is correct, otherwise we are only compounding the distress the people will be feeling about what has happened.

Embassy officials and people from the Australian Federal Police are on the ground in Yogyakarta and are liaising with emergency services. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has activated its crisis centre in Canberra. I have some hours ago given authority for all necessary personnel, resources, aircraft and the like to be made available to assist and to evacuate people for medical treatment to Australia, not only Australians but also any other personnel who may be in need, any other people who may be in need, of that assistance. An ADF aero-medical evacuation team is being prepared in Darwin for departure by an RAAF C130 aircraft, the Darwin hospital is on standby to provide any necessary medical assistance and as you would be aware it is very well prepared for these sad eventualities. An Australian Defence Force medical assessment team and a DFAT Emergency Response Team, which includes not only people with medical and other qualifications but also people who can provide some moral support in a very difficult situation, are departing this evening I think from either Sydney or Canberra on one of the VIP 737 aircraft. We are also offering Indonesia an AFP team to assist with expediting any disaster victim identification.

A DFAT hotline has been established, that is being widely advertised, but for the purposes of this conference I repeat it is 1800 002 214.

Shortly before this news conference I telephoned the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Rudd, and personally advised him of my knowledge to date of what has occurred. It is a terrible tragedy, many lives have been lost and our love and sympathy and condolences go to those who are suffering distress and grief and as I say, that is the best information I have at the present time. In the nature of things, information can alter as time goes by but it is clear that there has been a significant loss of life as a result of the crash. There were Australians on board and as I indicated earlier we must prepare ourselves for some bad news in relation to our own countrymen and women. Are there any questions?

JOURNALIST: You’ve got some VIP jets I believe…

HOWARD: Yes, and I’ve spoken to Mr Downer in Jakarta, I spoke to him about two hours ago and the arrangement is, as I understand it, Mr Ruddock will return to Australia on a commercial flight and I’ve told Mr Downer and of course he readily agrees that those two Challengers should remain in Indonesia in case they are needed. Mr Downer wants to go to Yogakarta, his only constraint at present is the potential physical constraint of landing there because of the chaos caused by the accident and naturally he doesn’t want to place any undue strain on the Australian resources and thus divert any of them, however slightly from the task in hand, but he will exercise his customary good judgement in relation to that issue. Those two Challengers will stay in Indonesia for so long as it may be necessary for them to be there to assist.

JOURNALIST: Mr Howard there’s been some unconfirmed reports of possible sabotage on the aircraft?

HOWARD: I have not received any advice suggesting that has been the case.

JOURNALIST: Just to clarify Prime Minister have you had any confirmed…or any reports of confirmed Australian deaths?

HOWARD: I think I should repeat what I said earlier, that given what has happened we should prepare for bad news in relation to that. I should also repeat that until the precise situation is established beyond any argument and any doubt, it’s important to say no more.

JOURNALIST: What were the Australians there for?

HOWARD: Well they were a mixed, they were largely in connection with the Ministerial visit. There was a counter terrorism conference that the Ministers were attending and there were people there, DFAT people and Federal Police and two people from the Royal Australian Air Force in connection with the VIP flights, the sort of people you would expect to be involved in a visit of that kind.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, are you able to rule out any suggestions of sabotage or terrorism involved?

HOWARD: Well I’ve not received any advice suggesting it was anything other than a tragic accident, but I don’t know the cause yet, I can only say to you I’ve not received any advice suggesting that there was sabotage or a terrorist attack, so it would not be right of people to suggest that that is a possibility in the absence of any evidence. But I don’t know the cause of the accident and there will presumably be an investigation carried out by the Indonesian authorities and they will establish the cause of the accident. But I have received no advice and no suggestion has been made to me or to any people I’ve spoken to that any kind of sabotage or terrorist related activity has been involved.

JOURNALIST: Will there be any Australian involvement in the investigation?

HOWARD: If the Indonesians want it we will assist, but I leave that entirely to them. I mean, we will offer to help, but the Indonesians will ask for our assistance if they need and we have offered assistance in relation to victim identification and whether that is taken up or not is a matter for the Indonesian authorities.

JOURNALIST: Which body in Indonesia investigates the crash?

HOWARD: Well I would imagine, and I’m not certain, it’s a very technical question but I would assume it’s a combination of the aviation authorities and the Indonesian police.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister situation. Can I ask a question, I’m from the Financial Review on another topic, Senator Lightfoot’s position. Is his position under any threat given the…

HOWARD: Well look can I tell you, I don’t have anything to add to what I have previously said. I have actually been spending all of my time since somebody else from your paper raised the matter with me earlier today focussing on this other issue and quite frankly, I am not able therefore to give any additional answer. I know your paper has given me some questions, well we’ll handle those, but it’s not my top priority at the present time.

JOURNALIST: Have you managed to contact President Yudhoyono in Jakarta? Is that appropriate at this time?

HOWARD: No I haven’t rung him and I, I mean, whether I do I’ll give some attention to that, but my concern since I heard about this around about half past eleven, quarter to twelve when a member of my staff informed me of it after I had done a news conference out at Cardinia was, when I heard about it, I have spent most of my time trying to be briefed on what’s occurred. I rang Mr Downer from the luncheon engagement I had and had a lengthy discussion with him and we discussed the matter and agreed on certain things which I have canvassed with you, and whether I talk to President Yudhoyono or not, I’ll give some thought to that. But my concern, my responsibility has been to make sure that all the assistance that’s needed is available, to be careful about what is said, because the worst thing one can do in a situation like this is to add to the distress and anguish that people are feeling. And as for other matters, well I will come to those, but I have been more preoccupied with the immediacy of the situation.

JOURNALIST: Do you believe you know any of the people, any of the Australians on board at this stage given the fact that they are journalists and of course diplomats?

HOWARD: Yes.

JOURNALIST: How does that affect you?

HOWARD: Well I, look, the potential death or injury of any Australian distresses me. That distress is greater when it occurs in a foreign country. There’s something about the death of one of your fellow countrymen in a distant place it affects you a bit more and then it’s further affected when it’s related in some way to being on service for the country. I mean I feel a particular responsibility for people who are in the Defence Forces, in the Federal Police, in the diplomatic service and I also feel a connection with, the responsibility is different, but a connection with people who report news. They are part of the democratic network of this country and they share many of the dangers and in some cases all of the dangers that are shared by diplomats and soldiers and police. Not quite to the same degree as police and soldiers, they share the ultimate danger more than any of us, but there is a, one has a special sense of concern when it does involve these people.

JOURNALIST: Mr Howard are you able to be any more specific about the 10 Australians on board or…

HOWARD: No, no, I am not going to be any more specific.

JOURNALIST: In terms of the numbers

HOWARD: Well I can say the best advice I have is up to 10. Now around 10, up to 10, I can’t be more precise than that because…

JOURNALIST: You can’t give a breakdown of AFP…

HOWARD: No, no I am not going to, I would rather not if you don’t mind. Please understand me when I say that it’s very important that all of us avoid in any way compounding the distress and anguish that some people are feeling at this particular time. Thank you.

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