Reuters International

By Aaron Bunch

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia and Indonesia are sending divers to inspect the wreck of a warship torpedoed off the coast of Java during World War Two next month to determine how best to protect the site from looters who have stripped numerous other WW2 wrecks.

The Australian cruiser HMAS Perth was sunk by Japanese forces in 1942 off the northwest tip of Java during the Battle of Sunda Strait. Of the 681 crew on board, 353 perished.

During the same battle, the USS Houston was sunk. Only 368 of its 1,061 crew survived.

"A physical dive on the site with archaeologists will be the only way to gain a clear picture of what remains of Perth," said Kevin Sumption, director of the Australian National Maritime Museum.

Divers discovered in November that the wrecks of two Dutch warships sunk in the Battle of the Java Sea, which the Perth had also participated in, had been completely stripped by marine salvagers, who have ransacked many other wrecks lying in Indonesian waters.

"We are very aware that there are concerns in the community and we are doing everything we can, working in close partnership with our Indonesian colleagues, to secure formal protection of the site," Sumption said.

Australia, Indonesia and the United States are yet to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage, introduced in 2001.

David Steinberg, the president of the Australasian Institute of Maritime Archaeology, said the case of the Perth and other wartime wrecks showed the importance of ratifying the convention.

A joint dive with Indonesia's National Research Centre of Archaeology originally set for October had to be postponed due to the early onset of the monsoon season. A subsequent attempt at a sonar survey was inconclusive, Sumption said. The results of the March dive will likely take experts several months to analyse.

(Reporting by Aaron Bunch; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

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