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February 4, 2004

Ashcroft Says Militants Victimize Muslim Nations


Filed at 4:41 a.m. ET

BALI, Indonesia (Reuters) - Militants are victimizing Muslim nations more readily than others, the United States said on Wednesday as ally Australia warned more attacks are inevitable in Southeast Asia, a region scarred by a string of bombings.

At a security summit on the Indonesian island of Bali, where bombs killed 202 people in 2002, U.S. Attorney-General John Ashcroft said Southeast Asia was a key focus for the U.S.-led war on terror.

``This is a very important area. First of all this nation has been victimized significantly, both in Jakarta and here in Bali,'' Ashcroft told reporters at a news conference on the sidelines of the gathering of his Asia-Pacific counterparts.

``It signifies that terrorists strike Muslim nations readily, if not more readily than they strike other nations and that our war is not a war against any religion,'' he said.

Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, has suffered a string of bloody attacks in recent years which authorities blame on al Qaeda-linked group Jemaah Islamiah. The group has also carried out bombings in the Philippines and planned attacks in Singapore.

Opening the two-day meeting, Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said more attacks by militants were inevitable in the Asia-Pacific region, despite disruptions to Jemaah Islamiah.

``In our own region collectively we have disrupted the Jemaah Islamiah network through the capture and detention of well over 200 members, but we have not disabled it. Key operatives are still at large,'' Downer said.

Jemaah Islamiah ``is planning for the long term and actively recruiting and training young men as the next generation of leaders,'' he said.

``More attacks which threaten the safety and security of our citizens are inevitable.''

Most of the victims of the Bali bombs were young tourists, many of them Australian. The attack was the worst since the September 11, 2001, assault on the United States.


The remarks by Ashcroft and Downer come a day after the well-respected International Crisis Group (ICG) think-tank released a report on Tuesday that said while Jemaah Islamiah may be less of an immediate problem, its majority faction would remain a longer-term security threat.

And in the meantime, ICG Indonesian director Sidney Jones said, ``I think there are a lot of other smaller groups that still have an interest in planting bombs in Indonesia.''

Foreign affairs and law enforcement ministers and top officials from Southeast Asia, South Korea, China, Japan, New Zealand and several other nations are in Bali for the talks.

Australian and Indonesian ministers said while militants had been dealt a blow, it was essential that political commitment to fighting militants be turned into action.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda told the conference, ``The simple fact is the terrorists are now on the run. However, we should not let down our guard.''

``While we must keep vigilant at all times, it takes only one successful attack for terrorists to make their day.''

Australian Attorney-General Philip Ruddock told reporters countries had to standardize and enhance their laws if terror was to be fought effectively.

Ashcroft oversaw the adoption of controversial legislation in the United States that gave law enforcement agencies sweeping powers to meet security threats.

The Patriot Act, enacted less than six weeks after the September 11 attacks, gives authorities the power to tap telephones, track Internet usage and mobile phones, share intelligence and detain immigrants.

Many Asian countries, including Indonesia, have also given authorities broader powers. But some Asian officials have questioned some U.S. methods in pursuing its war on terror.

The chief of Indonesia's state intelligence agency was critical of what he said was an indiscriminate U.S. policy of locking up suspects and rarely bringing them to trial.

``They are different. They use threats. We are more effective. Our people can differentiate between which ones are terrorists and which are not,'' A.M. Hendropriyono told reporters earlier.

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