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Asia-Pacific Nations Cooperate Against Terror Threat - 2004-06-17

Asia-Pacific countries have been warned at a special counter-terrorism conference near Sydney that their region is a "breeding ground for extremism." The three-day conference marks an unprecedented attempt by more than a dozen nations to co-ordinate efforts against the al-Qaida terrorist network and its Southeast Asian allies.

Australian Defense Minister Robert Hill warned the conference participants that, despite the arrest of key members, some militant groups in the Asia-Pacific region remain "persistent, innovative and adaptable."

The conference has brought together security agencies and special forces units, charged with dealing with the threat posed by al-Qaeda and its Southeast Asian ally, Jemaah Islamiyah. Australian officials say this week's meeting is an opportunity to form personal and professional links in the region to help fight terror.

During his speech Wednesday, Defense Minister Hill said the Asia-Pacific region had become a major front in the war on terror."As unpalatable as it may be, we have to acknowledge that this region is a breeding ground for Islamic extremism," he says. "As recent arrests have shown, even Australia is not immune."

More than a dozen countries are taking part in the closed-door discussions in the country town of Bowral, south of Sydney. They include delegates from Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines and Papua New Guinea.

Several militant groups operate in the Asia-Pacific region. Perhaps the best known is Jemaah Islamiyah, which seeks to create an Islamic state across much of Southeast Asia. Members of the group were responsible for bombings on the island of Bali almost two years ago, which killed more than 200 people.

Australia believes the most effective weapon against extremism is co-operation.

Since the Bali attack, Canberra has signed a host of treaties with its Southeast Asian and Pacific neighbors to enhance intelligence-sharing and border security.

The Australian government has spent $1.5 billion on anti-terrorism measures since the attacks in the United States in 2001.

Earlier this month, a British-born Muslim convert became the first man convicted under Australia's new anti-terror laws, after pleading guilty to conspiring with al-Qaida and Jemaah Islamiyah to blow up the Israeli Embassy in Canberra.