Biological agent shuts Indonesian embassy
An envelope containing a biological agent has been sent to the Indonesian embassy in Canberra in an apparent reprisal for Schapelle Corby's jailing in Bali.
The biological agent sent contained a bacteria, Prime Minister John Howard said tonight.
Mr Howard said he had been told the substance was a bacteria belonging to the bacillus group. "It's still being tested ... it's not an innocent white powder, it's some kind of biological agent," Mr Howard told the Nine Network.
"I'm not a scientist but they say it belongs to the bacillus group and is being tested. At this stage I can't tell you any more than that."
The bacillus group includes various forms of bacteria, one of which is the causative agent of anthrax.
The embassy in Canberra was shut down and its 22 staff isolated after the envelope arrived there today.
Mr Howard said he was staggered by today's incident.
He again linked the incident to anger over the 20-year jail term handed to Gold Coast woman Schapelle Corby for drug smuggling in Bali.
" ... can I say to people, please this is not helping her," the prime minister said. "In fact, it will hurt. And anybody who imagines that this kind of gesture towards the Indonesian ambassador is going to alter attitudes in Indonesia (should understand) it will have a negative effect on the judiciary, it will have a negative effect on political opinion in that country - all of which is very unhelpful.
"Guilty or innocent, if we want her to have a fair go in her appeal process this is the last thing we want."
Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer also condemned whoever had sent the package and said it would not help Corby's case.
"Further analysis of the powder has tested positive as a biological agent so further testing will need to be carried out to find out what that substance actually is," Mr Downer told Parliament.
"As such there is a possibility that the Indonesian embassy will need to be shut down for quite some period of time and the 22 staff will remain in isolation for the next 48 hours."
Fire, ambulance and police officers raced to the embassy after staff discovered the package about 10.30am (AEST) today.
Staff were ordered to stay inside while a sample was taken away for testing, an Australian Federal Police spokesman said.
Opposition foreign affairs spokesman Kevin Rudd said he spoke to the Indonesian Ambassador Imron Cotan this afternoon to express Labor's outrage at the "apparent attack".
Mr Cotan told him 50 members of staff at the embassy had been quarantined for 48 hours, contrary to Mr Downer's earlier statement in parliament that only 22 staff were in the building.
The letter arrived at the embassy this morning and a substance spilled onto the floor when it was opened, Mr Rudd told reporters in Canberra.
"What the Indonesian ambassador has told me is that this letter arrived earlier today.
"It was opened. It contained a substance within it which was then spilled onto the floor.
"The Australian authorities were called in at that moment to test it.
"Results of those tests have in part been delivered," he said.
Mr Rudd said Mr Cotan was not at the embassy when the substance was discovered.
When AAP contacted an embassy staff member by phone, the worker said staff had not been told of the initial test results revealing the presence of a biological agent.
Nor had they been told staff would be kept at the embassy for 48 hours, the worker said.
Mr Downer pleaded with the Australian public to stop attacking Indonesia over Corby's 20-year jail sentence for drug trafficking, handed down in Denpasar last week.
Talkback radio has been swamped by angry callers and some aid agencies have reported calls from donors to the tsunami fund asking for their money back.
Others have called for a boycott of travel to the archipelago.
"I know a lot of people in Australia are upset by the Corby verdict," Mr Downer said today as he revealed the incident at the embassy.
But denigrating Australia's northern neighbour would not help, he said.
"To continually attack Indonesia and denigrate its institutions and leaders will build up a good deal of anti-Australian sentiment in Indonesia and it will make it very difficult to conclude [prisoner transfer] agreements of this kind, particularly through public institutions like the Indonesian Parliament."
Opposition Leader Kim Beazley slammed those who sent the package to the embassy.
"This is a disgraceful act, to be condemned by all Australians," he said.
"It's very necessary, I think, to learn from this, that people should view the circumstances now surrounding the particular case which may have generated this with a bit of calm, dispassion and commonsense.
"There is no doubt at all that this is a very serious thing to have happened."
Mr Beazley said if it proved to be a dangerous biological agent, it would be the first time in Australia that this had occurred.
"There should be absolutely no doubt in the public mind that the house is of a combined and united view that this sort of outrageous behaviour must not be encouraged, an atmosphere which encourages it must not be sustained," he said.
Today's incident followed death threats made last month to the Indonesian embassy in Canberra, and the sending of bullets to the Indonesian consulate in Perth in April.
Both incidents were linked to the Corby case.
Aid agency heads gathered in Canberra today for the release of the first report into the relief effort and confirmed they had received calls from donors asking for their money back.
World Vision chief executive Tim Costello said his organisation had received about 30 calls from donors, some of whom just wanted to vent their feelings over Corby's sentence.
But he said to withdraw funds set aside for people devastated by last year's Boxing Day tsunami lacked compassion.
"That would be, in my view, not just lacking compassion, but making no real connection with other little people who are suffering," he said.
Care Australia said it had not received many calls asking for refunds, but Oxfam Australia has had some.
"We've had a few calls and we've tried to retain those donors," Oxfam executive director Andrew Hewitt said.
"The reality is the people who are affected by the tsunami have no influence whatsoever over the Indonesian judicial system and they should not be punished."
Mr Downer said officials from the Attorney-General's department would meet their Indonesian counterparts to negotiate a prisoner-exchange agreement, which would be a first for Indonesia.
Jakarta might be interested in a reciprocal arrangement because some of its citizens were imprisoned in Australia over drug, fishing, and people smuggling charges, he said.
He hoped the transfer agreement would be completed within 12 to 18 months, but stressed it might not apply to Corby, who is appealing against her sentence.