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Malaysia: First strike an 'act of war'

By Grant Holloway
CNN Sydney

Malaysian leader Dr Mahathir says Australia sticks out like a sore thumb in Asia

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CNN's Atika Shubert reports on tension in the South Pacific region between Australia and its neighbors over responses to terrorism. (December 2)
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A CNN Special Report by Jakarta Bureau Chief Maria Ressa 
War against terror: Southeast Asia front 

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (CNN) -- Malaysia says any first strike by Australia against terrorists on its soil would be regarded as an "act of war".

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad told media late Monday that Malaysia was opposed to any attempt by one country to impose its laws on another country.

Mahathir was responding to earlier comments by Australian Prime Minister John Howard that pre-emptive action against terrorists or military threats in other countries can be justified.

Howard told Australian television on Sunday that "it stands to reason" that Australia would strike first to prevent an attack against it, if it had no alternative.

"If they used rockets or pilotless aircraft to carry out assassination, then we will consider this as an act of war and we will take action according to our laws to protect the sovereignty and independence of our country," the Bernama national news agency reports Mahathir saying.

"It will definitely cause the situation to worsen. We feel this is not the way to fight terrorism," he said.

Howard on Tuesday told a media conference in Canberra his statement was not directed at any of Australia's friends and that he did not resile from the comments in any way.

"They don't mean any bellicosity towards our friends. They are a statement of the obvious in relation to the most elementary and fundamental responsibilities of the government," he said.

Howard said he did not think his statements had harmed Australia's relationships with its Southeast Asian neighbors in any way.

But the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia have also slammed the Howard position, with the Philippines foreign ministry accusing Australia of harboring "hegemonic ambitions".

"This is not helpful in terms of promoting understanding and cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region," Foreign Secretary Blas Ople said in a statement.

The Howard position has the support of the United States, however.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told media Monday that pre-emptive action was now part of the U.S. doctrine because of the different nature of terrorism.

"September 11th changed everything, and nations must respond and change their doctrines to face new and different threats, " Fleischer said.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard says his comments are not aimed at his nation's friends

"It requires a fresh approach to protect the country. Other nations think it through, as well, and come to similar conclusions. Australia has been a stalwart ally of the United States in the war on terror," he said.

Some Asian nations accuse Australia of playing "deputy sheriff" to the U.S. in the region, a perception that has been reinforced by Howard's first-strike stance.

Mahathir described Howard's statements as disappointing and arrogant.

He said Australia stood out like a sore thumb by trying to impose its European values on Asia.

Australia's Foreign Minister Alexander Downer defended his leader's position Tuesday, telling CNN the issue was being distorted.

There was no suggestion Australia was about to launch an attack on anybody in Asia, the South Pacific or anywhere else, he said.

"To suggest Australia has some sort of new doctrine that it is about to start bombing its neighbors is just absurd," Downer said.

But the minister repeated Howard's line that Australia would take action if it knew its citizens were under threat.

"If we know that our people are going to be killed and we have some way of stopping it then we will endeavor to stop it," Downer said.

Big task ahead

The Australian government's position comes in the wake of deadly bombings on the Indonesian island of Bali on October 12.

In that attack, nearly 200 people died and almost half of the victims were Australian.

Last month, Australians were warned of the possibility of an attack on home soil, with Canberra raiding the homes of several Indonesians living in Australia -- an action which also created consternation in Jakarta.

Downer on Tuesday said Australia recognized the efforts other countries were making to combat terrorism in the region but added that it was a big task.

He said Southeast Asian nations had "a very big agenda ahead of them to bring terrorism under control and to destroy terrorism".

"And we've been working with them in endeavoring to do that. But it is a very great challenge for Southeast Asia as a whole."

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