Howard praises Jakarta's anti-terror fight, avoids Iraqi issue
16 February 2003

JAKARTA Feb 15 - Australian Prime Minister John Howard on Saturday highlighted Indonesia's cooperation against terrorism and stayed silent on disagreements over Iraq during his visit to the world's largest Muslim- populated nation.

``I haven't come here to persuade Indonesia to a particular position (on Iraq),'' he told reporters before talks with President Megawati Sukarnoputri.

``I primarily came here to thank Indonesia for its wonderful cooperation in the investigation of the Bali attack.''

The prickly bilateral relationship has improved markedly in the aftermath of the October 12 Bali bombings which killed more than 190 people - 88 of them Australians. Australian police have played a key role in the probe which has so far netted 30 suspects.

Howard's stopover, on his way home from talks in Washington and London about the Iraq crisis, is seen as a goodwill visit in advance of possible strains on the relationship should war break out.

Australia has deployed some 2,000 military personnel to the Gulf and is the strongest supporter, after Britain, of Washington's tough stance against Baghdad over its alleged weapons of mass destruction.

Indonesia firmly opposes any military action without United Nations blessing and a series of anti-war protests have been staged, the latest outside the Australian embassy on Saturday.

A senior Islamic official refused to attend a meeting of Muslim leaders with Howard on Saturday afternoon.

``Howard's policy to send troops to Iraq really hurts the feeling of Indonesian Islamic communities,'' said Ahmad Bagdja on Friday.

He is vice chairman of the executive board of the moderate Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the country's largest Islamic organisation that claims 40 million members.

Another NU official who did show up, Andi Jamaro, said he wanted to express his views to Howard personally.

``The stance of NU is quite clear. We object to Australian involvement in Iraq and the sending of its troops,'' Jamaro told reporters.

Howard, in a joint press conference after talks with Megawati, made no mention of differences on Iraq. Both countries want a peaceful solution, he said.

``I explained Australia's concern about the spread of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons and my real concern that these weapons might find their way into the hands of terrorists,'' Howard said.

``Our concern about Iraq is a concern based on Iraq's behaviour as an individual nation and those who seek to depict our approach as in any way anti-Islamic are not telling the truth.''

Indonesia strongly supports a French, German and Russian proposal for strengthening the UN weapons inspection team in Iraq as an alternative to war.

The US and Britain have dismissed it. Howard told reporters that unless Iraq changed its attitude and started genuinely cooperating, the question of giving inspectors more time was irrelevant.

Howard, who later met Bali bombing investigators for tea, praised the Indonesians for their ``clearly impressive, professional and effective'' work.

He announced donations of 10.5 million Australian dollars (US$6.2 million), including aid for Sanglah hospital in Bali where many of the injured were treated.

Megawati confirmed that Indonesia will not hand over Egyptian people- smuggler Abu Quassey to Australia as it has repeatedly requested.

Quassey has admitted he organised an October 2001 voyage which led to the death of some 350 mostly Iraqi asylum-seekers as they headed for Australia in a dilapidated and overcrowded boat which sank.

He is being held at an immigration detention centre after serving a six- month prison sentence for visa violations. Indonesia, unlike Australia, has no law against people-smuggling.

Justice Minister Yusril Ihza Mahendra told reporters that extraditions could only be carried out if an offence is a crime in both countries. He said Egypt has asked for Quassey's extradition and details were being finalised.

Howard was to fly home Saturday evening. - AFP

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