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Malaysia Opposes US Help to Protect Malacca Straits - 2004-06-06

Malaysia is pledging to work with the United States on fighting terrorism in Southeast Asia, but warns a U.S. military presence could galvanize radical Muslim groups. The United States and other countries fear a terrorist attack in the Malacca Straits, the pirate-infested shipping lane bordering Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.

Speaking at a security conference in Singapore, Malaysia's defense minister, Najib Razak, warned that foreign forces in Southeast Asia could set back the region's ideological battle against "extremism and militancy" in radical Muslim groups.

Mr. Najib was referring to a U.S. proposal to send U.S. troops to patrol the vital Malacca Straits shipping lanes. The Straits border two nations with significant Muslim majorities - Malaysia and Indonesia - and Singapore.

Carl Thayer, a regional security analyst at the Australian Defense Force Academy, says Mr. Najib's comments reflect a regional worry that a U.S. troop presence will foster Islamic extremism. "The United States has taken the lead in the war on terrorism, which would be a lightning rod for terrorists in the region," he said.

In April, the commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, Admiral Thomas Fargo, suggested U.S. Marines and special forces should protect the Straits.

Since then, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and others have downplayed Admiral Fargo's comments, saying there are no plans for a military presence in the Straits.

But Malaysia and other countries believe the threat to security in the Straits is real.

Professor Thayer says terrorists could use maritime vessels as weapons, just as they used commercial airplanes in the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington.

"There seems to be growing evidence that consideration is being given by local terrorist groups of putting a radiological weapon on to a large tanker and exploding it to create massive environmental damage, but [also] massive economic damage," said Mr. Thayer.

More than 50,000 ships sail through the straits each year, carrying about one-third of the world's goods and one-half of its oil supply. Piracy is increasing in the lanes, which is fueling concern.

While Mr. Najib expressed concerns over foreign forces in the region, Singapore's coordinating minister for security, Tony Tan, said the city-state was open to American involvement.

Singapore is highly dependent on shipping, and a maritime terrorist attack could devastate the city-state's economy.