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Lateline Stephen Smith joins Lateline


Stephen Smith joins Lateline

Broadcast: 27/11/2008

Reporter: Tony Jones

Foreign Minister Stephen Smith joins Lateline from London to discuss the situation in Mumbai and how the Federal Government is dealing with it.


TONY JONES, PRESENTER: Joining us from London is the Foreign Minister Stephen Smith.

And Stephen, I think you actually heard earlier there the interview we did with Garrick Harvison, who is bailed up, barricaded inside his hotel, the Oberoi Hotel, waiting to be rescued.

Is there anything you know that you can pass on to his family and friends?

STEPHEN SMITH, FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, unfortunately Tony, whilst it's always pleasure to speak to you I wish tonight it was in different circumstances.

And all I can say is that we are desperately concerned because we can't at this stage account for the number of Australians either in the Oberoi Hotel or, indeed, in the Taj Mahal Hotel.

As has been made clear, our officials, our high commissioner is on the ground in Mumbai.

Our officials have been in contact with a number of Australians actually in both those hotels.

But unfortunately we can't confirm the safety and security and welfare of those Australians, and a number remain unaccounted for.

So, this is a desperately worrying situation and some of those reports that we have heard show Australians under enormous pressure showing stoicism and bravery.

But it's a difficult and desperate situation and we continue to monitor it together with the Indian Government and officials as best we can.

TONY JONES: How many Australians are unaccounted for in those two hotels, which are the scene of basically joint hostage taking scenarios.

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, if I go to the worst statistics first Tony. Firstly we can confirm that one Australian has been killed; I can confirm that.

For family and privacy reasons I am not in a position to confirm the identity, but one Australian has been killed.

Secondly there are reports of a second Australian being killed. I can't confirm that, but we are gravely concerned on the basis of information that we have.

We also know that a small number, two, possibly three Australians, have been injured. Not life threatening injuries, but have been injured.

And then, on the best of our estimates, anywhere up to 26 Australians in the hotel as best we can judge, and I don't want that figure to be regarded as definitive.

We've made contact with my advice with anywhere up to a dozen or so of those. So a number potentially remaining in one or both hotels who at this stage we cannot vouch safe for their safety or security.

TONY JONES: Let's stick with the case of the man that we know was killed. I know you can name him, although he has actually been named; his name is out on the wires now.

We won't go over that, there's no point. But what happened to him? I mean, there must be information coming to Australian authorities as to how he was killed?

TONY JONES: Well Tony, for the same reason that I am not proposing to identify for name individual concerned, I am not proposing to go through any of that detail.

The reason we are not confirming the identity is for family and privacy reasons, and we very much want to respect that.

Wire services or media outlets may be seeking to identify, but we regard the death of any Australian as being tragic.

And we do our best in these circumstances to not just respect the wishes of family concerned, as we extend to them our deepest sympathy and condolences, but also to respect other requirements we have as far as privacy is concerned.

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So, other than to say generally we've had a terrible terrorist attack in Mumbai, we condemn that absolutely.

There are grave concerns coming from the sophisticated and orchestrated nature of the attack, and the fact that it targeted westerners or foreigners; that's worrying for a range of reasons.

But I'm just not proposing to go into any of the detail which goes to the terrible death of an individual Australian, and as I say we are gravely concerned about reports of a second Australian death.

TONY JONES: OK, the situation could get vastly more serious, if that is possible, because of something the Indian Prime Minister has just said.

It's now out on the wires that he's saying that these attacks were orchestrated or came from outside of India.

Now, the implications of that are clearly quite... well, could be extraordinarily damaging.

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, firstly, I haven't... as you and I am working from the same disadvantages, I haven't seen the words that he's used.

The report I have, albeit like you a bit on the run, is that he's indicated there may be, there may be external influences. So, I don't put it any higher than that.

What do we know... what we do know is that a group describing itself as Deccan Mujahedeen or Indian Mujahedeen have claimed responsibility for the terrible attacks.

This is not a group that is well known or known at all to the various agencies, either Indian or international.

So, I think there's a fair amount of water to flow under the bridge before anyone comes to a conclusion as to who is behind these terrible

extremist attacks.

But, what we do know is we've seen in the past in India, even this year, whilst it's very regrettable, nonetheless we've seen it, inter-communal violence or terrorist attack.

But this seems qualitatively different given the sophistication and range of targets.

But also for the first occasion we are seeing what is either substantially in part or, indeed, wholly an attack upon Western or foreign....

Western or foreign targets.

Whether that is aimed at United States or United Kingdom, nationals, as has been suggested or more generally, is of equal concern.

But this is a qualitative shift in what we have seen in India, and from an international community perspective, it's gravely, gravely worrying.

TONY JONES: OK, we know you have to go; you are off to an appointment soon.

But very briefly, this will change a lot in terms of how Australians view India, but what happens when Australians visit India.

And indeed, we've just had a cricket tour to India among other things. The Australian cricket team is meant to be going over there for Twenty20 matches in Mumbai.

I mean a lot will change as a result of this, isn't that so?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, my next appointment is a phone hook up with Indian External Affairs Minister Mukherjee, where I'll relay sympathies and concern.

But secondly, today we have changed or upgraded the travel advisory to India; we've essentially increased the level saying to Australians in light of what occurred that they should reconsider their need to travel to India.

So, this is as a result of this terrorist extremist attack putting our travel advice to Australians at a higher level. People who are in India should exercise grave caution.

But for the reasons that I've outlined; the qualitative nature of the attack, the fact that we have increased to the next level, the second highest level, our travel advisory has the implications that you have referred to.

This will require considerable thought about Australians and their intentions of going to India.

At the same time Tony, this with is a relationship that we want to take to the front line of our international relationships.

We've seen a very successful visit to Australia by Minister Mukherjee. I had a successful trip to India halfway through the year.

We are enhancing our engagement with India. We’ve made it clear to India, as I will to the Minister Mukherjee in a few moments time, that we are ready, willing and able to assist.

We've indicated that we're prepared to assist with Australian Federal Police in their technical expertise.

So, we are shoulder to shoulder with India as they face this terrible moment and I'll also, of course, make it clear to the Minister Mukherjee about our grave concern about the Australians who continue to be, we think, in a precarious or difficult situation.

TONY JONES: Alright, Stephen Smith, we'll let you go off and make the call. Thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us tonight.

STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks Tony, thanks very much.

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