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Foreign Minister discusses terrorist attack in Mumbai; and Thailand.



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MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS STEPHEN SMITH, MP

TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE

DATE: 1 December 2008

TITLE: Interview with Sky News Australia

COMPERE: For more on the Mumbai situation, we're going to cross to Canberra now where Sky News political reporter, Ashleigh Gillon, is going to be speaking with Foreign Minister Stephen Smith, who is in Brussels.

Good morning, Ashleigh.

REPORTER: Good morning, Selina. Good morning, Terry, and good morning, Foreign Minister Stephen Smith.

What's the latest information you have about the death toll in Mumbai, and how confident do you think we can now be that there won't be any more Australians found dead?

SMITH: Well, we can now, unfortunately, confirm two Australian deaths. Brett Taylor was confirmed some time ago. I can now confirm Douglas Markell, we can officially confirm that.

We've got a very small number wounded or injured, three or four. We've

identified the 84 Australians who were known by us to be in the vicinity, and so the only possibility now of further casualties is if an Australian of whom we haven't been aware is amongst the 20-odd foreigners who are confirmed by the Indian authorities to be dead and in the hotels.

I think that's a remote possibility, so I think with that caveat, it'll be,

unfortunately for those families, two Australian casualties and a small

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number of wounded or injured. The most seriously wounded young Australian is returning home today. She of course has been shot in the leg and she's being accompanied by family, and arrives in the course of today Australia time.

REPORTER: Minister, is it becoming any clearer yet just how these terrorists managed to slip through the intelligence net?

SMITH: Well, we need to - the starting point, of course, is the Indian authorities. We need to do a very careful assessment of what occurred, whether there were any gaps in intelligence which, with hindsight, could have been filled, whether there's more that could have been done. That'll require very careful assessment by the Indians in conjunction with other authorities.

But already in India we've seen the acceptance of political responsibility by the Interior Minister, who's resigned. Whether that indicates a failure of security or a failure of intelligence, time will tell. But that very careful assessment needs to be done to see whether there was a gap and whether there's anything we can learn from.

REPORTER: How concerned are you about the escalating tensions between India and Pakistan, and in particular, these reports that are coming out today that Pakistan is considering diverting troops from its border with Afghanistan to the border with India?

SMITH: Well, in recent times, we've been very pleased that relations between India and Pakistan have been on the improve. This of course will no doubt bring tensions; we understand that.

But we've been very pleased with the way in which the Pakistani leadership - President Zardari, Foreign Minister Qureshi, Prime Minister Gilani - have been making the point that they absolutely condemn what's occurred, they absolutely rule out any Pakistan government involvement, and they've indicated a preparedness to work with the Indians to examine how the terrible terrorist attack occurred. So we're urging calm and restraint on both India and Pakistan.

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Of course, history between the two nations leads us to understand that there will be tensions, and their neighbours and the international community has to give that relationship support.

It's very important, given the difficulties that we have in Afghanistan and in Pakistan and now in India with this terrible attack, that we've got good relations between those two countries. That's important for the region; it's also important for the international community.

REPORTER: Turning to Thailand now. Qantas is hoping to bring home some stranded Australians this evening on a flight out of Phuket. Can we now be sure that most of those Australians who have been stuck in Bangkok will be able to arrive home in the coming days?

SMITH: Well, our Transport Minister, Anthony Albanese, and I spoke over the weekend, and Mr Albanese spoke to Alan Joyce, the CEO of Qantas, and Qantas, to their great credit, agreed to put on this special flight. That'll come out of Phuket late today and go via Singapore. We know that that flight will effectively be full.

I suspect that there will be other Australians still stranded there, so we're

looking at what further measures we can take to relieve their frustration and their distress. We continue to put pressure on the Thai Airways authorities and the Thai Tourist Authority, but the essential problem remains that the two airports in Bangkok International Airport and the domestic airport are effectively closed, and so we're forced to take these special steps and transport some Australians by bus to Phuket and get them on the special Qantas flight.

But I'd be very surprised if this were the end of our difficulties, and that's

why our Ambassador in Thailand and our officials there are continuing to work very hard and in very close contact with the stranded Australians to try and relieve their distress as soon as possible.

REPORTER: This has been going on for six days or so. There are now reports that over the weekend there was a half-empty Thai Airways flight heading back here

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to Australia. Why couldn't it be arranged to get more Australians on those flights and get them back here sooner?

SMITH: Well, as I say, we've been very frustrated with Thai Airways trying to improve their service for their customers and for others. I can't confirm that report.

But what we also know is that whether it's around the two airports in

Bangkok that are closed or whether it's around Utapau, the other airport, which is about 150 kilometres away from Bangkok, we know that there's effectively chaos around that airport, and in Chang Mai there are also some difficulties.

Now, we've got our consular officers, we've got some at Utapau, we've got one at Chang Mai. We've had our officers regularly checking the two Bangkok airports to make sure that no Australians were there because we advised them to keep away. And our officials have been going through the hotels speaking to about 350 to 400 Australians who have been stranded, and our call centre has taken over 2000 calls, had 2000 contacts.

So there is a lot of frustration, there is effectively around the airports a lot

chaos. So it doesn't necessarily surprise me that, although I can't confirm it, that a flight may take off without it being full because there are great difficulties actually getting to airports.

That's the reason why over the weekend we spoke to Qantas and we're very pleased that Qantas has put this special flight on, which will bring about 300 back. I suspect there's much more that needs to be done, and our Ambassador and our officials are working very hard to try and do that.

REPORTER: Foreign Minister Stephen Smith in Brussels, thanks for your time.

SMITH: Thank you.

[ENDS]