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Australian PM reiterates support for pre-emptive strike

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AUSTRALIA - National Interest Comes First, Howard Insists

Bob Burton

CANBERRA, Dec 2 (IPS) - Despite the outrage his statements have caused among governments across Asia, Prime Minister John Howard has stood pat on his position that he would support launching pre-emptive military strikes against terrorists based in neighbouring countries if they posed a threat to Australia.

Amid angry reactions from Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, he told the Australian Parliament on Monday: "Nothing that I said yesterday was in any way directed against the countries of our region, it was not in anyway directed against the governments of our region..."

He insisted his comment was "related to the willingness of this country to defend Australia's national interest ... to take legitimate measures if other alternatives were not available and if there was a clear precise and identifiable threat".

Senator Bob Brown urged Howard to withdraw his statement and apologise. "It damages our relationship not only with the countries in our neighbourhood but obviously it creates a lot of tension."

"Our job is to create better relationships within our neighbourhood like Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand and not to be inherently threatening as the prime minister has done in this statement," he said on Monday.

"This is a major gaffe by a Prime Minister who's been caught out by jingoism," Brown, from the Greens Party, said.

Officials around the region described Howard's statement as "arrogant" and "very dangerous".

"Nobody does anything like this," Thai Foreign Ministry spokesman Ratthakit Manathat said. "Each country has its own sovereignty that must be protected."

Interviewed live on the national current affairs programme on Sunday, Howard was asked if he would act against terrorists based in another country planning to attack Australia.

"Oh yes, I think any Australian Prime Minister would. I mean, it stands to reason that if you believed that somebody was going to launch an attack against your country, either of a conventional kind or of a terrorist kind, and you had a capacity to stop it and there was no alternative other than to use that capacity then of course you would have to use it," he said.

He went a step further by suggesting that the United Nations charter be reviewed to allow a country to launch a pre-emptive strike against "terrorists" in other countries.

This was met by a chorus of criticisms from officials across the region who were appalled by Howard's comments.

The Philippines' national security adviser Roilo Golez told ABC radio on Sunday that Howard's statement was extraordinary. "That's a very surprising statement, to say the least, in fact bordering on shocking. I can't believe that it would come from a supposed friendly country in the neighbourhood."

"You are talking about a region with very strong government, the ASEAN region. This is the 21st century, not the 19th century," he said.

Brushing aside the criticisms, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer told ABC radio on Monday: "If people misinterpret what the Prime Minister has said then they have to live with the consequences of their misinterpretation."

The Howard government's blunt defence of his controversial comments comes as no surprise and in fact sets the tone for cabinet discussions this week on counter-terrorism measures.

The government is pressing the Senate to pass legislation to give sweeping powers -- that have been subject to widespread condemnation from human rights and legal groups -- to security agencies.

The government's position is a reflection of a high-level rethinking of Australia's defence strategy in the wake of both the Sep. 11 attacks in the United States and the Oct. 10 bombing of Bali nightclubs, where close to 190 people were killed, half of them Australian tourists.

The Australian government quickly accused Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), which seeks to create a pan-Islamic state across South-east Asia, of involvement in the Bali bombings.

With JI added to the list of terrorist organisations, Canberra's counter-terrorism agency, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, and the Australian Federal Police wasted no time with their new powers to flush out suspected radical forces in the country.

They launched at least three raids in Perth, Melbourne and Sydney on the homes of Muslims, mainly Indonesian Australian, that they believe could have links with Jemaah Islamiyah.

The raids prompted protests from the Indonesian Foreign Ministry about a lack of consultation and heavy-handed tactics, but Howard defended the raids as being in Australia's national interest. And reflecting Australia's new security mindset, Defence Minister Robert Hill on Wednesday flagged the need for a more "liberal" interpretation of what constituted self-defence.

"Whilst anticipatory self-defence has always been permissible, clearly this new environment requires a more liberal definition of self-defence to be meaningful ... The issue now is how you define self-defence in an environment of unconventional conflict, non-state parties, weapons of mass destruction, global terrorism," Hill said in an interview.

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