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Minister discusses the Philippines status of forces agreement.



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TRANSCRIPT SENATOR THE HON ROBERT HILL Minister for Defence Leader of the Government in the Senate

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INTERVIEW WITH ALEXANDRA KIRK

ABC Radio - World Today

12.40 pm, Wednesday, 19th October 2005

E&oe___________________________________Philippines Status of Forces Agreement

Presenter: Staying on foreign affairs matters, the Australian Government is set to beef up its counter-terrorism cooperation with the Philippines. The Defence Minister, Robert Hill, says he hopes a special Status of Forces Agreement will be signed before the end of the year, to allow for joint counter-terrorism exercises in

2006. Authorities are concerned that Jamaah Islamiyah has been training in camps run by militant organisations in the southern Philippines and Senator Hill says both countries are keen to boost the Philippines’ ability to undertake front-line fighting against terrorists within its borders. From Manila, Robert Hill spoke to Alexandra Kirk.

Senator Hill: At the moment we are restrained by the Philippine Constitution. We can’t go much further than we are at the moment without a Status of Forces Agreement. We’re in the process of negotiating that. We’ll be the second country after the United States to have such an agreement with the Philippines. And that will then allow us to, for example, conduct a higher-end training or joint exercises with the Philippine Armed Forces. So in terms of building their capability, that’s the next step in assisting them in that regard.

Journalist: And what difference do you think that would make - being involved in these joint exercises at a higher level?

Senator Hill: They do it at the moment with the United States, and that has significantly boosted their capability, but we do have areas of expertise - for example, in maritime surveillance and special forces work, that they believe would assist them in building their capability. They want to engage with us in that regard. We say it’s in our interest because there is a concern about terrorists moving north up the archipelago - particularly into Mindanao and receiving sanctuary there, and perhaps establishing training camps. Well that’s obviously not in our interests, so we want to work with the Philippine Armed Forces so they can effectively defeat that threat.

Journalist: And effectively defeat that threat how?

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Senator Hill: Firstly front-on, in terms of terrorists who won’t respond in any other way, but also in working with the local community in Mindanao to bring them onside, and convince them that it’s not only a threat to outsiders but a threat to their own society as well. So a lot of effort’s being put into development programs - both economic development and social development, and that’s something that I think is very important.

Journalist: And would you see Australian soldiers being involved in joint counter-terrorism operations in the Philippines?

Senator Hill: Well, we haven’t got to that stage; that’s not something we currently envisage.

Journalist: It’s not the natural, logical next step?

Senator Hill: Well, the way we’re working in South-East Asia is to build capability of local forces. It’s better for the Philippines Armed Forces to deal with terrorists within the Philippines - no doubt in my mind about that. But they need a capability boost to be able to effectively do that, and it’s in the area of building their capability that we can help.

Journalist: What specifically are their shortcomings, do you think? Why haven’t they been able to counter that terrorism threat?

Senator Hill: They’re very short on resources - financial and in platforms. They’ve asked us, for example, if we could assist them with long-range reconnaissance vehicles - they don’t have that capability. We will look at that, and they’ve also asked us if we would consider helping them acquire a small-boat capability to patrol the marshes in Mindanao. There’s a very large marsh area and it’s believed that the terrorists find protection within that area, and at the moment the Philippine Armed Forces don’t have the capability to patrol in that environment. So

those sort of areas they’re talking to us about, and if we can help them, we say it’s in our best interests so we’re looking to see how we can do that.

Journalist: So is there a shortage of money and equipment, or is there a shortage in their counter-terrorism capability?

Senator Hill: They need more high-level training, they need the support of the international community. They’ve received it from the United States, we now say it’s important that they receive it from other countries as well, and that it’s in Australia’s best interests to help them.

Journalist: How quickly do you think you’ll see this forces agreement finalised?

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Senator Hill: Well, it’s been through a number of drafts and it’s with the Philippine side at the moment, and they’ve promised to get back with their response next month and our hope is that we can have it concluded by Christmas.

Journalist: And that’s the Defence Minister, Robert Hill, speaking to Alexandra Kirk from Manila before he headed to Seoul.

ENDS