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Prime Minister discusses Mumbai terrorist attacks; and Afghanistan.

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Prime Minister of Australia


Interview with Karl Stefanovic Today Show - Channel Nine

28 November 2008

Subject(s): Mumbai Terror Attacks, Afghanistan


STEFANOVIC:Prime Minister, Canberra. Prime Minister, good morning to you. Thank you for waiting and listening.

PM: Good morning, Karl.

STEFANOVIC: Can you give us the very latest on your understanding of what is happening in Mumbai right now?

PM: I spoke to the Australian High Commission in Mumbai about 15 minutes ago and the situation is still tense on the ground. You reported earlier on the statistics in relation to numbers of people killed and the number of people who have been injured.

Our understanding is that the situation at the Oberoi Trident Hotel is still tense, and our understanding also is that there is still activity elsewhere. I don't wish to be more specific than that, other than that this terrorist incident is still unfolding in parts of Mumbai, and therefore we are getting ready for a very difficult day ahead.

STEFANOVIC:When you say a “difficult day" are you able to confirm yet or have authorities there been able to confirm that Australians are being held hostage at the moment?

PM:The Australian High Commissioner and we have about a dozen staff on the ground now in Mumbai - as of yesterday from our embassy or our High Commission in New Delhi the consulate general in Mumbai - have been working very closely with the hotel authorities and also with the Indian authorities to establish lists, essentially, who was registered in which hotel, to ensure that we have some corroboration of that as well, to corroborate that in turn with people we've subsequently identified and to work out who we have yet to establish contact with.

This is a very methodical but difficult task. I think everyone watching your program would understand how chaotic this is on the ground. Our consular and diplomatic staff are working around the clock in shifts at the moment to try and get all this right. And are working in close cooperation with colleagues from other embassies as well, because other embassies are running into people or having contact with people, and so there is a lot of sharing of information as well, as you would expect.

STEFANOVIC:So the short answer is you're not sure at this point?

PM:We have concerns, but I am not authorised to go into specifics in relations to numbers. I would much rather get all of our facts absolutely right first. The worst thing you can do in these circumstances is provide people with inaccurate or misleading information.

But what the High Commissioner, John McCarthy, told me a little while ago is that everything physically that can be done is being done on the ground by staff working around the clock in shifts to work our way through this ugly, awful terrorist incident which has ripped at the hearts of people from right around the world, including our own country.

STEFANOVIC:Okay so at the moment, it stands that you have concerns that there may be or may not be Australians involved in being held hostage at the moment. What about the -

PM:Karl, I won't go beyond what I said before. I think that's the responsible course of action.

STEFANAOVIC:Fair enough, too. In terms of the Australians that are in hotel rooms in Mumbai at the moment, what do they do? Because to some extent it is probably safer for them to stay where they are, but that is also dangerous. How do

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they get out and what are you doing in order to get them out?

PM:Well, Karl, I don't propose to go into that on a television interview from here, and the reason for that is we have our own processes in place, some of which are working better than others depending on the extent to which communication lines remain open.

But these are sensitive, difficult, delicate areas and our authorities on the ground, together with our authorities elsewhere, are doing everything physically possible to assist people in difficult circumstances.

Now, this will obviously mean that there’ll be problems, for example, such as those referred to by those you just interviewed, Brooke and David, I understand that. But look, every mission, every diplomatic mission, consular mission on the ground is dealing with an extraordinary event and we are trying to work our way through all of all of this.

STEFANOVIC:Alright, so what is your response to those people who are saying this morning in Mumbai who are potentially facing life-threatening situations that the Australian Government isn't doing enough for them?

PM:Well, all I would say is that we understand how terrified people are by this incident. We've deployed staff as rapidly as possible to Mumbai to supplement the existing consular staff there.

When was speaking to the High Commissioner yesterday on the telephone, he was physically outside the Taj Mahal Hotel directing the Australian effort. I mean this is a very hands-on operation. The professionalism from our diplomatic and consular staff is absolutely first-class.

Now, on the specific matters raised before about exit arrangements, what I could also say, Karl, is this: that the Government yesterday has been in direct contact with Qantas. Qantas has advised us that they will maintain their regular services to Mumbai during this period. Qantas has also advised us that they will provide special additional services if that is necessary. On the particular points raised before by those whom you were interviewing, I will ask the consulate general in Mumbai to get back in direct contact with them to confirm and with any others calling in, what are the best set of administrative procedures to go through in terms of exit arrangements.

Understand the priorities here. One, identify those who have been killed and injured. Two, work out who is missing. Three, work with the Indian and hotel authorities to try and identify where physically they are. And four, do everything practical to support them in difficult circumstances.

That's been our priority. Getting people out of the country and out of Mumbai is also important and I take seriously what has just been said and we will act on it.

STEFANOVIC:Alright and difficult as well. We understand there will probably be frustrations on both sides there.

PM:No. It's just tough. There is one other thing I would say, too, as people return from Mumbai to Australia, the Centrelink family support service will be on hand at Australian airports to provide teams of social workers, counsellors and referral services to people who will experiencing all levels of trauma from an event like this.

And furthermore, the Minister for Family Services will make further announcements today about support services for them. These are the procedures that we click into gear when there have been other such incidents involving Australians in terrorist incidents or extreme events like this abroad.

STEFANOVIC:Prime Minister, simultaneously we are mourning the loss of another soldier in Afghanistan, fighting for our beliefs and ideals in Afghanistan. We see that these terrorists have gone into Pakistan, they have come from Pakistan now into India. Would it not be prudent to increase our numbers in Afghanistan to try and get on top of this. Would it make any difference do you think?

PM:Well firstly what I would say Karl was, let us today mourn the loss of another son of Australia. This is a brave young man who has given his life proudly wearing the uniform of Australia. Let’s also remember his family and his two comrades who have been wounded. This is a day of mourning for us all.

On the broader question of Afghanistan, as I said most recently in discussions in the United States and elsewhere, we believe our current commitment in Afghanistan is about right. We have no plans to increase that. I have also said that our military commitment in Afghanistan is for the long haul but it doesn’t involve a blank cheque. I have also said it is subject and should be subject, together with other countries, of formal annual review against the civilian and military strategy necessary to secure our goals.

You see let’s remember the families today. This is a bad day for the Australian army. A bad day for our men and women in uniform in Tarin Kowt and elsewhere in Afghanistan and it is a tragic day for this young man’s family.

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STEFANOVIC:I agree wholeheartedly with those sentiments. Prime Minister, there is, correct me if I am wrong, but a sense of real frustration and also anger that Australians are feeling here where we are fighting this war in Afghanistan yet these attacks keep going and keep happening. How do we hit back, where do we hit back and who do we hit back against?

PM:I think you are right Karl. There’s a great feeling of anger and frustration across the Australian community about basically, the faceless presence of terrorism.

Think of our friends in India right now and people going about their workaday lives. People in the Jewish community in Mumbai who have come under particular attack as well as tourists, American, Australian, British.

The challenge we have with terrorism is in it’s faceless a lot of the time. It is international in its reach. Therefore the practical challenge is what do you do about it. In the case of Afghanistan, what’s our strategic objective? To prevent Afghanistan from becoming an unfettered base for global terrorist operations again as it was in the events leading up to September 11. That is an objective.

Secondly however terrorist cells and terrorist organisations continue to operate around the world. And at a practical level, what it means is that our intelligence authorities and police authorities like the Australian Federal Police are in daily contact now with each other, frankly, following people around the world.

But often, it’s a needle in a hay stack. And I salute the intelligence of our police and intelligence officials for doing a lot of work which will never be publicly recognised, preventing events from occurring which people will never find out about.

But this, this tragedy that we have seen in Mumbai, and the ongoing scourge of terrorism is an enemy of all people, of all civilised people and I think the only way to deal with this in the future is to be hardline in our domestic terrorism laws at home. Hardline and practical and pragmatic in the cooperation we extend to other countries including India to deal with the terrorist threat which of course, given we have so many Australians abroad at any one time, is a threat to so many of us as well.

STEFANOVIC:You said it right in Parliament yesterday PM, that they are cowards. They are indeed. There is a lot on your plate at the moment. They are troubled times and we do, and our viewers do appreciate your time in talking to them. Thank you.

PM:Thanks very much Karl.


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