Australia says next major terror attack`a matter of time'

AP , CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA

Thu, Aug 14, 2003 - Page 5

Prime Minister John Howard said yesterday he agreed with the nation's intelligence chief that another "catastrophic" terrorist attack against Western interests was just a matter of time and Australia was a probable target.

"It may sound a rather grim warning but that's the kind of world we live in," Howard told Sky News Television. "Nobody should underestimate how much the world changed on the 11th of Sept. 2001."

Meanwhile, the foreign ministry reissued travel advice for Indonesia, warning that Australian intelligence agencies continue to receive reports that further terror attacks are being planned against soft targets like hotels.

Australian Security Intelligence Organization chief Dennis Richardson said in a speech delivered privately last week that he shared American fears of another terror strike like those on the World Trade Center and Pentagon that killed thousands.

"There is genuine concern that a catastrophic attack is a certainty and only a matter of time, a point on which I'm inclined to agree," Richardson said.

Howard said Richardson, whose comments were made public Tuesday, was in the best position to make such an assessment.

Australia has been a dogged supporter of the US in the fight against terrorism including sending troops to both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. More recently Canberra has backed Washington's plan to set up a multinational interception force to stop international trade in weapons.

Earlier this week Howard announced a "renewed determination and willingness" to cooperate with Indonesia, which has been has been hit by two major bombings in less than a year, in fighting terrorism.

An attack last week on the JW Marriott Hotel in Jakarta killed 11 people and the Oct. 12 blasts on the resort Island of Bali killed 202 people, including 88 Australians. Both have been blamed on the al-Qaeda linked terror group Jemaah Islamiyah.

Yesterday, the Department of Foreign Affairs urged Australians to defer nonessential travel to Indonesia.

"We continue to receive reports that further attacks are being planned against so-called soft targets, including international hotels, shopping centers or identifiably western businesses," the advisory said.

Howard, who said the government must do everything possible to protect Australians against terrorism at home and abroad, defended a decision to renew cooperation with Indonesia's Kopassus special forces troops.

Australia's defense forces once helped train Kopassus officers, but severed links in 1999 because of alleged human rights abuses by the special forces in East Timor, Aceh and West Papua. The decision to renew ties, announced last week, drew fire from opposition parties.

"Kopassus is the only unit in Indonesia that's got that anti-hijacking, counter-terrorist capability," Howard told Sky News.

"And in a limited way, and assuring ourselves as best we can that we are not dealing with the baddies, we have to cooperate with them," he said.