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Australia: Howard's Comment on Terrorists Draws Criticism

Prime Minister John Howard says he was not referring to Australia's neighbors when he said his government would strike against terrorists in other countries. The comment has drawn heavy criticism at home and abroad. Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad says any Australian military action would amount to a "declaration of war".

Despite the controversy, Prime Minister John Howard is standing by his remarks. Tuesday, he repeated that pre-emptive action might be warranted if there was no other way to stop terrorist attacks on Australian soil. He is not, he says, spoiling for a fight.

At a news conference, Mr. Howard stressed his statement was not directed at Australia's neighbors and denied his comments had hurt relations with Asia.

On Sunday, Mr. Howard said he not hesitate to send Australian troops overseas to eliminate terrorists who were planning to attack his country.

The comments have sparked a firestorm of anger both inside and outside the country.

Tuesday, Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said any Australian intrusion into his country would be considered an act of war. In news reports, he was quoted as saying "this is not the way to fight terrorism."

Even at home, Mr. Howard faces tough criticism. Opposition politicians accuse him of alienating Australia's neighbors at a time when cooperation is needed to fight terrorism. Labor Party leader Kevin Rudd thinks Mr. Howard has damaged Australia's reputation abroad. "I think the Prime Minister is engaged with language which is designed to make him look hairy-chested to his domestic audience, but I really question the wisdom of the prime minister using this language in terms of how it is read from our friends and neighbors in the region," says Mr. Rudd. "Because as it is being read, it is seen as Australia, under John Howard, contemplating the possibility of an attack on the territory of our neighbors in Southeast Asia."

Mr. Howard's comments come as Australia increasingly grapples with the threat of terrorism following the October 12 bombing of a Bali tourist nightspot. At least 190 people died in the explosion, about half of them Australians.

On Tuesday, the Australian government warned the aviation industry to be alert for suspicious people who might try to use aircraft for new terror attacks.