Tue, Jul 27, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Australia `ignores' terrorists, slams erstwhile partners

REUTERS , CANBERRA

Australia will ignore threats of attack by a group saying it is the European wing of al-Qaeda and blamed Spain and the Philippines for fueling the threats by giving in to terrorists and withdrawing troops from Iraq.

The Islamic Tawhid Group said in a statement posted on a Web site that it would attack Italy and Australia with "columns of rigged cars" if they did not withdraw their troops from Iraq.

"We are still investigating the authenticity and relevance of that body, but we will not take any notice of threats of that kind," Australian Prime Minister John Howard told reporters in Sydney yesterday.

"We will not parlay and negotiate with terrorists and I believe the overwhelming majority of the Australian public will agree with us," said Howard, who sent 2,000 troops to the US-led war on Iraq.

Last Wednesday, the previously unheard-of Islamic Tawhid Group also threatened Bulgaria and Poland if they did not leave Iraq.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer again said that the decision by Spain and the Philippines to withdraw troops from Iraq had encouraged terror groups.

"What they have done in these two cases is accede to the de-mands of the terrorists. And in those circumstances, if you accede to the demands of terrorists, all you do is embolden them to continue the strategy," he told Australian radio yesterday.

Downer said there were no plans to raise Australia's security-alert level from its current medium level.

"We only would increase our alert if we had information that there was credible information that there was to be some sort of attack," Downer said.

Spain's Socialist party had vowed to withdraw the country's troops from Iraq and made good on its promise after unexpectedly winning a March 11 poll, three days after 191 people were killed in coordinated train bombings blamed on Islamic militants.

The Philippines brought its troops home early to save the life of a Filipino hostage.

Howard last week defended his decision to join the war in Iraq after a report criticized Australia's intelligence agencies and their assessments of pre-war information.

He has said Australia's 850 troops in and around Iraq will stay as long as necessary. A poll has shown two-thirds of Australians support his stand.

But the opposition Labor party, polling neck-and-neck with the eight-year-old conservative government, has pledged to bring troops home by Christmas if it wins office in a cliffhanger election tipped for October.

Labor's foreign affairs spokesman Kevin Rudd said Australia should concentrate more on helping countries like the Philippines fight terror rather than criticizing them.

"I don't know if this latest diplomatic fusillade from our foreign minister helps," Rudd told Australian radio yesterday.

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