Australian Prime Minister John Howard announced yesterday a new anti-terrorism accord with the Philippines and an aid package designed to bolster Southeast Asia's security shield against attacks.
Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty and Philippine Interior Secretary Jose Lina signed the new accord on cooperation against terrorism and cross-border crime, Howard said. It builds on an earlier counterterrorism pact signed by the countries in March.
Howard, in Manila on the first leg of an eight-day Asian trip to be dominated by security concerns, spoke at a news conference with Arroyo after holding talks that focused on how to help the Philippines battle terrorists and the poverty that breeds them.
Australia will also provide a security assistance package that includes training for Philippine police on forensics and crime-scene investigations, a laboratory to detect document fraud, the strengthening of port security, and bolstered links with their Southeast Asian neighbors in law enforcement and border control, Howard said.
"This assistance reflects Australia's commitment to working closely with the Philippines to combat terrorism and the priority we attach to cooperation to strengthen the region's counterterrorism capacity," Howard said.
In addition, he said five Australian policemen have arrived to help investigate a bomb attack last week that killed at least three people in southern Koronadal city.
Before meeting Arroyo, Howard said he would specifically discuss reported links between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a Philippine Muslim separatist group, and suspects in last year's Oct. 12 bombings on the Indonesian resort island of Bali which killed 202 people, including 88 Australians.
Howard said there was evidence that another Philippine Muslim extremist group, the Abu Sayyaf, has links with al-Qaeda and its Southeast Asian ally, Jemaah Islamiyah.
"The Philippines has suffered from terrorism, parts of it have suffered very severely and we're very conscious of that," Howard said after arriving Sunday. "We want in every way we possibly can to work together."
The Abu Sayyaf is notorious for kidnappings and beheadings, as well as for bombings and banditry in the Philippines' troubled south. Washington has deployed forces since last year to help Filipino troops wipe out the rebels, whose number has declined from a few thousand to less than 500.
Australia intensified efforts to strengthen counterterrorism cooperation in the region following the Bali attacks.
But many Southeast Asian officials and groups expressed concern when Howard announced that he might order pre-emptive strikes against terrorist cells in some countries before they could launch attacks on Australian targets.
About two dozen left-wing activists held a brief protest near the Australian Embassy, holding up placards reading: "Howard US puppet" and "Howard war-monger." Security guards prevented them from approaching.
Philippine officials insisted there were no threats and called the closures an overreaction that harmed the country's image.