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New Suspicious Powder Threat in Australian Capital


A suspicious package addressed to the Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer has forced the closure of a section of the parliament building in Canberra. Police have since confirmed the contents were not dangerous, but are investigating possible links to a similar incident at the Indonesian Embassy earlier this week.

Part of the basement of Parliament House was shut down when the package, which contained white powder, was found during routine screening Friday.

This security emergency comes two days after the Indonesian Embassy in Canberra was sealed off because it received an envelope containing an abusive letter and an unidentified powder.

Initial tests have revealed the substance is almost certainly harmless, dispelling earlier fears that the embassy had been targeted in an anthrax attack.

Australian police are now investigating whether the two incidents are linked.

The government believes the embassy scare was part of the backlash over an Indonesian court's decision to jail a 27-year-old Australian woman for 20 years for drug trafficking.

Schapelle Corby has always protested that the four kilograms of marijuana found in her luggage was put there without her knowledge. Many Australians believe her and are convinced she did not receive a fair trial.

Australia is worried the security scare at the Indonesian Embassy and anger over the Corby judgment could damage relations with Jakarta.

Canberra has apologized for the embassy scare and Foreign Minister Alexander Downer has appeared on Indonesian television to express his dismay. "Australians right across the country are absolutely appalled at what has happened and they extend their sympathy to the Indonesian ambassador and to the staff working in the embassy," he said.

There are also concerns that Australian interests in Asia could face retaliatory action after the Indonesian embassy letter scare.

Diplomats overseas have been warned to take extra precautions. Security has been increased at the Australian Embassy in Jakarta, which was bombed by extremists last year.

Prime Minister John Howard said retaliation remains a real threat. "Just as we cannot guarantee a random act of stupidity with an evil intent from amongst our 20-million people will not occur, equally I cannot expect a guarantee from the Indonesian government that some evil act of retaliation will not occur in that country," he said.

Australia's relations with Indonesia have improved significantly in recent months, due in part to Canberra's generous response to the December tsunami, which devastated parts of northern Indonesia.

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