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Mon, Nov 05, 2001 - Page 4 News List

ASEAN to skirt divisions over war in Afghanistan

REUTERS , BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN, BRUNEI

Asian leaders began arriving yesterday for a summit in the Islamic sultanate of Brunei as strains start to show over support for the US bombing of Afghanistan.

The centerpiece of the ASEAN summit is a declaration of support for the war on terror and a commitment to coordinate ASEAN's anti-terrorist efforts.

But the group is divided over the US bombing of Afghanistan and a summit declaration ducks any reference to it.

"Some ASEAN members are strongly aligned to the US and prefer to keep silent, while for instance Malaysia and Indonesia have already voiced their opposition to military action," a Malaysian official was quoted as saying by the Malaysian news agency Bernama.

The official said some countries were cautious about offending Washington.

Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim nation, and mostly Muslim Malaysia have already said the bombing of Afghanistan should stop and will seek backing within ASEAN.

"We urge for a humanitarian pause. We have to be attentive to the problem of civilian sufferings," said Makarim Wibisono, head of foreign and economic relations at the Indonesian foreign ministry.

ASEAN begins its two-day annual summit today, along with the leaders of north Asian neighbors China, Japan and Korea, as civilian casualties in Afghanistan mount and with the Islamic holy month of Ramadan less than two weeks away.

ASEAN Secretary-General Rodolfo Severino said the organization's message was that it opposed terrorism in all its forms and was determined to take measures to combat it.

But the declaration would contain no reference to Afghanistan.

"What is happening in Afghanistan is not part of the declaration because the declaration that the leaders may issue will be about ASEAN cooperation in combating [terrorism], especially in this area," Severino said.

Indonesia's Wibisono said Afghanistan would be discussed on the sidelines as the continued US bombings could alienate moderate Muslim states and jeopardize the global coalition against terrorism.

"The issue is being handled through the lobbies but not at the meeting proper," Wibisono said. "It will not be reflected in the final document.

"This question of sensitivity to that issue is essential because it will [be needed to] guarantee the cohesiveness of an international coalition to combat terrorism."

ASEAN's broad commitment to Washington's campaign against terrorism echoes the pledge these same leaders made at the bigger Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Shanghai last month, but its focus will be how to counter cross-border militancy in the region.

The wording of the declaration is still being worked on, as some countries, such as Indonesia, want a binding convention ratified by national parliaments to cement coordination between the security and defense forces of the ten nations.

Indonesia and the Philippines are fighting separatist movements and in the past three months Malaysia has locked up supporters of an opposition Muslim fundamentalist party on suspicion of belonging to an Afghan-inspired militant group.

The governments have raised the spectre of links between militant groups in the three countries.

"Terrorism in Southeast Asia has a transnational dimension," Severino said.

"In the summit, they will be looking at specific measures to deal with terrorism, perhaps the financial resources of terrorists, in terms of exchange of intelligence and border control," he said.

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