Mon, Oct 20, 2003 - Page 5 News List

APEC heads get serious on security

FIGHT The US has primed Pacific Rim leaders to clamp down on terrorism groups in an effort to halt their apparent recovery from previous crackdowns in the Asia region


Persuaded by the US, Pacific Rim leaders are ready to step up their fight against terrorism, but they acknowledge the sobering reality that al-Qaeda-linked extremist groups seem to be recovering quickly from a spate of recent crackdowns and are plotting a new series of attacks.

Underscoring these fears, terror is challenging free trade as the main topic at the annual meeting of the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation grouping in Bangkok.

The choice of venue is dramatically apt as Southeast Asia is at particular risk. Jemaah Islamiyah, a terror group seeking a pan-Islamic state across the region, killed 202 people when it bombed a Bali nightclub district in Indonesia a year ago and is blamed for a string of deadly attacks elsewhere.

Security for the summit, which formally starts today, is tight. Thai fighter jets escorted arriving VIPs planes bringing in leaders from 21 member economies and countries. Helicopters shadowed motorcades through the city's unusually empty streets.

We are confident "that we can provide enough security for them," said Air Chief Marshall Kongsak Wantana, who commands Thailand's airforce.

At the meeting, leaders are expected to make a promise to "dismantle" terror groups, according to draft communique obtained by reporters.

US President George W. Bush, who is pushing hard for support for his war on terror, also wants APEC leaders to discuss how to head off what could be more catastrophic danger in the years ahead: North Korea's ambitions to amass nuclear weapons.

Yesterday, Bush accorded the status of non-NATO ally to Thailand, upgrading US military ties with a country that has given crucial help in counter-terrorism. During a visit to the Philippines just before arriving in Bangkok, Bush promised help to modernize the army there to fight terrorists.

And on Saturday, the US announced a US$5.4 million project to station US officials in the Philippines to work with the Asian Development Bank on improving security at airports, ports and container handling facilities.

That came after APEC members agreed to a US request to strictly control the production and sale of portable missiles that can shoot down civilian jetliners.

In presummit meetings, senior officials of APEC countries acknowledged that terrorism severely damages economic growth. But some APEC members have been reluctant to focus so much on security at a trade forum. That includes China, but a US official said "we overcame" that reluctance.

Authorities have cracked the ring responsible for the Bali bombing and in August arrested Hambali, Jamaah Islamiyah's operations chief and Osama bin Laden's alleged point man in Asia.

But the organization was able to regroup within three weeks of Hambali's arrest, a senior Indonesian intelligence adviser told reporters this week.

The adviser said the group is in the middle of a recruitment drive and has appointed 48 people to carry out new attacks between December and April on international hotels and other Western targets in Asia. The adviser and other Asian officials said the three new top Jamaah Islamiyah leaders are believed to have played key roles in the Aug. 5 bombing of Jakarta's J.W. Marriott hotel that killed 12 people.

The three -- two Indonesian and one Malaysian -- include a new operations chief to replace Hambali and top bombmakers, they said.

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