Wed, Jul 28, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Filipino, Spanish troop withdrawals help terrorists, Australian FM says

REUTERS , Canberra

Filipino demonstrators burn posters during an anti-Australia protest outside the Australian embassy in Manila yesterday. Australia refused on to apologize to Spain and the Philippines after blaming them for encouraging militants to issue threats by withdrawing their troops in Iraq.

PHOTO: REUTERS

Australia yesterday refused to apologize to Spain and the Philippines for saying their withdrawal of troops from Iraq encouraged militants.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said Spain and the Philippines needed "to face up to the truth" that they were being exploited by terrorists, who were using them as examples when threatening other countries with attack.

Spain summoned Australia's ambassador in Madrid on Monday to protest Downer's comments over the past two days, which it described as "unacceptable."

"There's no point in trying to scurry away from the truth ... I am sensitive about the fact that terrorists use the examples of Spain and the Philippines in order to put pressure on Australia," Downer told Australian radio. "If you accede to the demands of terrorists they will exploit the acceding to their demand ... we are not going to apologize. We'll let bygones be bygones."

Downer's comments came after a group claiming to be the European wing of al-Qaeda threatened Australia and Italy with attacks if they did not follow Spain and the Philippines by withdrawing their troops from war-torn Iraq.

Australia is still investigating the credibility of the threats made by the Islamic Tawhid Group in a statement posted on a Web site that said it would attack Italy and Australia with "columns of rigged cars."

The previously unheard of Islamic Tawhid Group last week also threatened Bulgaria and Poland if they did not leave Iraq.

Spain's Socialist party had vowed to pull troops out of 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 in Madrid blamed on Islamic militants.

The Philippines brought its troops home earlier this month to save the life of a Filipino taken hostage in Iraq.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard yesterday said he supported Downer's comments and denied his minister had sparked a row with Spain and the Philippines.

"There's no rift, there's a difference of opinion about Iraq," Howard told reporters in Sydney. "[The withdrawal of troops] sent the wrong signal and you don't buy immunity from terrorist attacks by giving in to them."

Howard last week defended his decision to join the US-led war on 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 center-left Labor party, polling neck-and-neck with the eight-year-old government, has pledged to bring troops home by late-December if it wins office in a cliffhanger election tipped for October.

Labor leader Mark Latham said Australia should be concentrating on cooperating with international allies in the war on terror rather than "squabbling."

He told reporters: "We've got to be cooperative rather than part of an international blame game."

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