Wed, Sep 22, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Alex Downer plays down `hairy-chested' comments


Australia's government yesterday reassured its Asian neighbors that suggestions of pre-emptive strikes against overseas extremist bases would not target its partners in the war against terror.

However, opposition leaders accused Prime Minister John Howard of sending mixed signals with the softened tone, saying his "hairy-chested" comments Monday were geared towards winning votes in the Oct. 9 general election.

Some analysts also said they appeared to be electioneering.

National security has become a top campaign issue after Australia's embassy in Jakarta was bombed earlier this month. With Howard's hawkish image, the blast had been widely expected to favor the conservative government. However, a new poll yesterday showed the opposition Labor Party had opened up an election-winning lead.

Trying to allay regional concerns after Malaysia took exception to Howard's statement Monday that he would not hesitate to launch a unilateral strike, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer specifically ruled out any such attacks on Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia or Singapore.

If needed, he said, they would target "failed states" that were unable to police themselves, citing the Solomon Islands.

"Of course we haven't any intention of sending troops into Indonesia without the approval of Indonesia," Downer told national radio. "Now in the case of Indonesia, or Malaysia or Singapore or the Philippines, these are countries which are our partners in the war against terrorism.

"But imagine a situation -- it's not likely to be Indonesia or a country which has a strong counter-terrorism capability but a failed state in the South Pacific, as the Solomons once was and is not now -- and terrorists were about to attack and the country involved either didn't want to, or in their case, couldn't do anything to stop it.

"We would have to go and do it ourselves."

Australia last year led international intervention in the Solomon Islands to restore law and order after years of militia violence.

Howard denied that he was sending mixed messages but said he did not think a pre-emptive strike would be needed.

"I don't expect any of this to arise, but I don't want any Australians to be in any doubt as to where I stand on this issue," he said. "And I think sensible people will understand it."

Security analyst John Bruni said it was clear that any attack on Indonesia, widely considered the most logical target of any pre-emptive strike by Australia, could conceivably lead to war.

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