U.S. Navy Seals and Indonesian forces are practicing anti-terrorism drills, including boarding ships and battling pirates, in a palm-fringed string of resort islands near Jakarta, officials said on Monday. The program, aimed at improving the ability of the two nations’ forces to work closely, was part of a broader effort by Washington to boost regional security, a U.S. official said.

“We are not using any lethal assets. It involves only non-lethal assets,” said Max Kwak, a spokesman for the U.S. embassy in Jakarta.

“The war on terror is also part of it,” he added, but declined to say where the drills were being held or how many U.S. troops were involved.

Piracy is a big concern for Asian and Western security forces who warn that terrorists could exploit lawlessness in the region, particularly in the key Malacca Strait shipping lane, to launch a crippling attack on global trade.

Fears among some states bordering the strait that the United States was seeking a policing role were a factor behind the launch last year of coordinated patrols by Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.

“This event is an exercise, not a joint operation at sea between the Indonesian military and the U.S. Pacific Command,” said Lieutenant Colonel Edi Fernandi, a spokesman for the Indonesian navy’s western fleet.

Kwak said the Subject Matter Expert Exchange program, under which this month’s drills fall, was reinstated last year, after its suspension in the wake of the violence by Indonesia-backed militias following East Timor’s 1999 vote for independence.

Military ties between Indonesia and the United States have begun to strengthen in recent months.

However, a senior U.S. official said over the weekend full relations would not be restored until Jakarta accounted for past violence in East Timor and brought to justice those behind the 2002 murder of two American school teachers in remote Papua.

Fernandi said the current exercises began with classroom sessions on May 2 and would finish on May 13.

He said they were being held in the Kepulauan Seribu archipelago just north of Jakarta. Although the name literally means one thousand islands, there are only about 130, many home to tourist resorts.

“On Saturday, we started exercises on Laki Island involving 34 soldiers from the Indonesian navy, seven from the U.S. Navy SEALs, five from the Indonesian army and five from the Indonesian air force,” Fernandi said.

“The exercises include anti-piracy and searching a ship in dealing with sea terrorism.”

© 2005 Reuters