Thu, Jul 29, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Philippines rebukes Australia

DIPLOMATIC LANGUAGE The Philippines government is not pleased about being likened to a marshmallow by the Australian defense minister over troop withdrawals

REUTERS AND AFP , MANILA, CANBERRA AND SYDNEY

A diplomatic row between Australia and the Philippines over Iraq policy looked set to deepen yesterday after the foreign ministry in Manila called the Australian ambassador in for a meeting.

A spokesman for Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer and an Australian embassy official in Manila confirmed that ambassador Ruth Pearce had been called in.

Philippines foreign affairs department sources said that Pearce would meet a senior diplomat yesterday afternoon, but that Philippine Foreign Secretary Delia Albert would not be present as she was on an official visit to Mindanao island.

Officials in Manila did not confirm Australian media reports that the government had called the meeting to express anger over Downer's criticism of Manila's withdrawal from Iraq to save a Filipino hostage's life.

Demonstrators tore up and burned Australian flags and images of Downer and Australian Prime Minister John Howard in Manila on Tuesday in protest at Australia's criticism.

Downer has refused to apologize to Spain and the Philippines for saying their withdrawal of troops from Iraq encouraged militants, saying they needed "to face up to the truth" that terrorists were exploiting them.

Spain summoned Australia's ambassador in Madrid on Monday to protest Australia's stance, which it described as "unacceptable."

Downer blamed the two countries after a group saying it was 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.

Howard has also refused to back down or criticize comments by Downer, saying his conservative government's hardline stand against giving in to terrorists should be used elsewhere.

Downer this week had suggested the Philippines was acting "like a marshmallow" by deciding to withdraw troops from Iraq early to save the life of a hostage threatened with beheading.

"I don't think Alexander Downer has gone too far at all," Howard said during a pre-election visit to Karratha in Western Australia. "Alexander Downer was strongly putting the view that you do not give in to terrorists, and I totally support him."

"We will never turn back the tide of terrorism if we bargain and parlay with them and that has been the position of the Australian government all along and other countries should adopt the same position," he said.

The Philippines brought its small contingent home last week, straining its close alliance with Washington but winning widespread support at home for securing the release of truck driver and father of eight Angelo de la Cruz.

Philippine President Gloria Arroyo has asked allies to understand the decision because she had to protect the interests of 8 million Filipinos living abroad, many escaping poverty.

The Philippine ambassador to Australia, Cristina Ortega, was un-available for comment yesterday, but Australian newspapers reported that she was disappointed with Australia's "harsh criticisms" of her country.

"We feel very hurt because we thought we were allies," she told the Age newspaper.

Australia's opposition Labor Party also attacked the government over its public criticism, saying Australia must tread carefully when criticizing Southeast Asian neighbors such as the Philippines.

"Australia needs a close partnership with the Philippine government, and all other countries in Southeast Asia if we are going to deal with this threat," Labor's defense spokesman Kim Beazley said.

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