Monday, July 18, 2005

INTERVIEW - London blasts seen as lesson for Southeast Asia

JAKARTA (Reuters) - Copycats could stage deadly London-style bombings in Southeast Asia's major cities, many of which are ill equiped to deal with such carnage, the secretary general of the region's main political grouping said on Monday.

The July 7 London attacks serve as a valuable lesson to remain alert for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which is battling its own forms of home-grown terrorism.

"Vigilance against such kinds of terrorist attack must be maintained. We have many urban centres in the ASEAN region and our public transport systems are just as vulnerable," ASEAN Secretary General Ong Keng Yong told Reuters in an interview.

"At the moment, we are doing a lot of cooperation that we cannot talk about publicly. But we have been active in at least two things. One is educating each other about the modus operandi of such groups. And two, how do we deal with a situation when it actually happens?" he said.

"We can't prevent it. We try our best ... but if it happens we must not let further damage be done. That's what we are working on."

Ong, a Singapore national, said there was some concern of "copycat actions" by militants in the region who had been following events in London, and a key lesson should be for governments to engage all parts of society.

"What happened in London is a very obvious example of how people who have been part of society ... could be motivated (to violence)," the secretary general said.

"So we need to engage our Muslim populations, our Islamic authorities ... all the segments in the population."

Initial investigations in London revealed that four British Muslims, the youngest only 18, blew themselves up in separate attacks on three underground trains and a bus during the main rush hour, killing more than 50 people.

U.S. MAKES A POINT

Southeast Asia's most populous nation, Indonesia, is no stranger to suicide attacks by home-grown Muslim militants, but most have been aimed at Western targets using car bombs.

There have been a string of attacks in Indonesia in recent years blamed on the al Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiah network, including the Bali nightclub blasts in 2002 that killed 202 people, mostly foreign tourists.

Ong, speaking ahead of a security meeting of more than 20 Asia-Pacific foreign ministers, including those of the 10 ASEAN members, in Laos on July 28-29, said the issue of terrorism would be a key topic of discussion.

The ASEAN Regional Forum, which includes representation from the United States and the European Union among others, is held every year and is the region's primary security forum.

ASEAN groups Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Laos, Myanmar, Malaysia and Cambodia.

Ong said the upsurge in violence in southern Thailand was likely to be one of the issues of concern to ministers in Laos, along with the threat that terrorists pose to the vital Malacca Strait shipping lane.

He said ASEAN members were disappointed by Washington's apparent decision not to send its top diplomat, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, to the meeting, but that the decision was not seen reflecting changing security priorities.

"There is a feeling among ASEAN colleagues that maybe there is a point being made," said Ong.

He said Washington may be partly registering concern over its perception of a lack of democratic progress and poor human rights records in some Southeast Asian countries.

"I think there could be a combination of factors. It would not just be Myanmar. In the U.S. Congress there are also people unhappy with Lao policy (on ethnic minorities) or Vietnamese policy on religious freedom."

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