Powell Addresses Regional Security Issues

US Secretary of State Colin Powell commended Cambodia’s counterterrorism efforts on Wednesday on the third day of Asean talks where regional security issues emerged from beneath the shadow cast on the talks by the fate of Burma’s pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Though Burma remained the key agenda item, Wednesday’s Asean Regional Forum also witnessed the signing of a counter-terrorism agreement between Australia and Phnom Penh, which will see closer defense co­operation and technical assistance to help Cambodia’s anti-terrorism efforts.

“Asean nations and particularly our hosts in Cambodia have recently taken some strong and positive steps against terrorists operating in the region,” Powell told a news conference.

Powell said he encouraged all ARF members to take “specific and concrete steps” to tackle terrorism threats in the region.

Cambodian authorities last month closed two Islamic schools and charged Thai Muslims Abdul Azi Haji Chiming, 35, and Mu­ham­mad Yalaludin Mading, 41, and Egyptian Esam Moham­med Khidr Ali, 40, with international terrorism linked to the militant Jemaah Islamiyah group, which has been blamed for last year’s Bali blasts.

A fourth suspected Jemaah Islamiyah member, a Cambodian Cham Mus­lim, was arrested last week in Phnom Penh. Cambodian police say the sus­pects were planning attacks this month, and the sweeps that netted them were sparked by information from the US government.

ARF members had approved two “action oriented statements” on Wednesday regarding maritime and land border security to prevent terrorism, Powell said.

Powell also raised the issue of HIV/AIDS in the region, which he said was a security issue as the deadly disease had killed more people than any weapon of mass destruction.

Opening the 10th ARF session on Wednesday morning, Cambo­dian Foreign Minister and Asean Chairman Hor Namhong also called for closer counterterrorism cooperation and vigilance in the face of the recent attacks in Saudi Arabia, Chechnya and Morocco.

The forum issued a statement later in the day renewing commitments to fight terrorism and noting the complexity of the threats it now faces, including militants’ connections with organized crime.

“[Terrorism] has links with trans­national organized crime, such as money laundering, arms smuggling, people smuggling, and the production of and trafficking in illicit drugs,” the statement noted.

The Cambodian and Australian counterterrorism memorandum of understanding that was signed Wednesday was touted as a framework for increased cooperation in security, intelligence, law enforcement and defense, according to a statement from Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer.

“The agreement provides for counterterrorism training and education and technical assistance programs,” Downer stated.

Details of the memorandum were not released on Wednesday and it remained unclear what form Australia’s counterterrorism technical assistance would take. However, an Australian diplomat said the details are still to be discussed.

“The agreement provides a framework for cooperation be­tween Cambodia and Australia in preventing and combating international terrorism, including money laundering and illegal trafficking in weapons,” Hor Nam­hong said in a statement released after the signing ceremony.

Australia and the US cut their military assistance programs to Cambodia following the factional fighting in 1997. Australia re­sumed non-lethal military aid to RCAF in mid-1999.

Western military officials speculated last year that the so-called “war on terrorism” may see a targeted resumption of military assistance to RCAF to build counterterrorism capabilities.

Downer also announced the Australian government would hand over a further $2 million for de­mining in Cambodia. Since 1994, Australia has donated         $24 mil­lion through the Cambodia Mine Action Center for demining efforts.

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