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Foreign Minister discusses Mumbai terrorist attacks; and Thailand.



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MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS STEPHEN SMITH, MP

TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE

DATE: 28 November 2008

TITLE: Interview with Virginia Trioli, ABC2 Breakfast

VIRGINIA TRIOLI : Joining us right now is Foreign Minister Stephen Smith, he's on the line from London. Stephen Smith, good morning.

SMITH: Good morning, Virginia.

TRIOLI: What's the latest that you can update us on the status of the Australians believed to be still trapped in those hotels?

SMITH: Well, again, I can confirm, one Australian's dead. There are unconfirmed reports of a second Australian death which we're very gravely concerned about. We continue to believe that we've got a number of Australians in the hotel. We can't be very precise or precise at all about the numbers, it could be as high as 26, but even that I say, is a very rough estimate.

We've made contact with some of them through our offices on the ground, our High Commission staff on the ground but we know there are other Australians who we believe are in the hotel who we haven't been able to make contact with and that's been, unfortunately, the position for some hours and so we're in the very difficult position of not being able to account for the safety and security of a number of Australians and that's desperately worrying for us as it is for their families.

TRIOLI : Stephen Smith I know this is a very quickly moving and also rather obscure issue this morning, but as far as you know, do you know that the incident at the Taj Palace Hotel has been ended and that there are no hostages being held there anymore?

SMITH: Well, I've seen suggestions to that effect, but I can't confirm that. What I can confirm is that we know over the last period, the last number of hours, that people have been coming out of the Taj Mahal Hotel, certainly for a number of hours now, if you like, hostilities or activity at that hotel has been considerably less than at the hotel down the road at the Oberoi Hotel.

We can't confirm that all activity has seized at the Taj Mahal Hotel but that is - has been looking for some hours as being, you know, considerably better position in terms of safety and security than the hotel down the road and the additional difficulty with that hotel of course is there's also fire there.

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We know that some people including some Australians, have come out of the Taj Mahal Hotel but I can't confirm that all hostilities or activity has ceased there but it's in a much better shape than the other.

TRIOLI: Okay, so just to clarify then, the potential 26 Australians that we might be still concerned about, that's not exclusively the province of the other hotel, the Oberoi Hotel, that's 26 across the two hotels.

SMITH: Yes, and again, but I just make this point clear, that's the figure I've used. We can't be definitive or precise about that.

TRIOLI: Yes, of course.

SMITH: We have registered Australians who register through our travel, through our smart traveller system and so we've been endeavouring to make contact with Australians who are registered. We've made some contact with those.

We've also made contact with other Australians whose families have expressed concern to us either in Canberra or in India about their whereabouts.

But we also believe there are other Australians who we haven't been able to make contact with who we can't account for so that's a rough figure. Frankly, if there's one Australian that we can't account for, that is cause for concern for us.

But it is a very difficult situation. I spoke early Australia time to my counterpart, my Indian counterpart, External Affairs Minister Mukherjee and he was quite open about the fact that we've got a difficult situation where it's difficult to be precise about the facts and where events continue to unfold.

And we've got our High Commissioner, who, by coincidence, happened to be in Mumbai effectively on the ground in the vicinity of the hotel doing his best together with other offices.

So it may well take some longer time before there's a capacity once hostilities ceased in the Oberoi Hotel, a capacity to make final assessments about who's been in the hotel and who has managed to effectively get out safely.

TRIOLI: Minister, you mentioned the unconfirmed second Australian death. Do you hold grave fears that there could be even more fatalities?

SMITH: Well, I certainly hold grave fears about a second Australian fatality on the basis of the information that I have which I am not in a position to go through with you. I am very gravely concerned about that. I am not proposing to speculate about any others, other than to say we know that we have a number of Australians unaccounted for and when we can't account for them, when we can't vouch safe for their security and welfare then we and their families of course are desperately worried. But I am not proposing to speculate about any other potential fatalities.

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We've just got to very patiently take this as best we can step by step even though that's putting enormous pressure on Australian families and also enormous pressure on those people who either we or the media have made contact with, who are in the hotel who on all the reports I've seen and heard are conducting themselves in a very brave and stoic manner.

TRIOLI: Are you comfortable and pleased with the level of information and cooperation you're receiving from the Indian Authorities an officials?

SMITH: Absolutely. I put a call out to External Affairs Minister Mukherjee. I was frankly surprised, given the great pressure that the Indian Government is under that I was able to speak to him, relatively quickly, he was at pains to firstly thank Australia for the condolences that I relayed, very grateful for my indication that Australia would stand shoulder to shoulder with India, we would render assistance if they needed it or wanted it.

He was also at pains to make the point that the Indian military and police who have got the job of trying to bring the situation under control are very, very conscious of the danger to what the minister described as innocent victims in the hotel and very conscious of not doing anything which would exacerbate their dangerous or perilous situation so, and undertook to let us know as quickly as possible what further information comes to hand but he was also quite open about the fact that even for the Indian authorities it's a very difficult situation to get fully on top of.

But I've got absolute confidence in the Indian authorities to handle what's a very, very difficult situation as well as anyone can.

TRIOLI: What's the plan that the Australian Government has to assist Australians to get out of Mumbai and to get out of India?

SMITH: Well, those Australians who we, who have either come out of the hotel or who are in the vicinity that we've made contact with, we're rendering them whatever assistance we can to either make sure they're safe in Mumbai and Australians who are in Mumbai should essentially stay inside and keep their heads down but also to facilitate people in terms of getting out of Mumbai, indeed getting out of India.

As you may be aware late yesterday we changed our travel advisory for India to reconsider the need to travel. This is a higher level, our second highest level and obviously we've done that given what's occurred in terms of these terrible terrorist attacks in the last 24, 36 hours.

TRIOLI: What's the Australian Government's understanding about the nature and the identities of those who claim to be behind these attacks. What does your intelligence tell you, Minister?

SMITH: Well, I never talk about intelligence, firstly. Secondly I think it's very early days, you know, yes, I've seen the suggestions of the so-called Deccan Mujahadeen, a group that's frankly not well known.

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I've also seen suggestions that there may have been external influences or external assistance. I think this is very early days. I think, given, the sophisticated, orchestrated nature of the attack the fact that for the first time in India we're seeing an attack which looks as though, in part or in whole, that's targeted at westerns or foreigners is a disturbing development. So, I think we're a long way from coming to any conclusive judgements about that.

But can I also just make this point. Having made the point that for the first time we've seen an attack which may well be aimed at westerners or foreigners or at people from the US or the UK this is at its core, an attack upon India and the Indian people.

There are Indian casualties and fatalities in this is an attack upon India's territorial sovereignty, its integrity. So this is first and foremost an attack upon India but the sophisticated nature and coordination of the attacks, half a dozen or more, and the attack either at westerners of foreigners or at symbols of the west is a very disturbing development.

We've seen terrible and regrettable attacks in India in the course of this year but these have almost exclusively been, if you like, communal or internally aimed and focused.

This is the first time we've seen an attack of this nature.

TRIOLI: Stephen Smith, we're very short of time and it's a difficult question to answer briefly but could I just get your response on the latest developments in Thailand, an equally serious issue.

SMITH: Well, in recent hours, and just as I've been speaking at length to our High Commissioner in India I've been speaking to our ambassador in Thailand. In recent hours the Thai Government has declared a state of emergency on the two airports.

They may well see those airports cleared and available for use in the forthcoming period. For the present, we urge Australians to stay away from the airports for fear of demonstrations or violence at the airports.

They should certainly keep away from demonstrations or from government buildings. We've managed, through our Ambassador and our officials in Thailand to get the Thai tourist authority to pay for one or two nights of additional accommodation and we're at the same time

exploring every option with the Thai authorities but also with the airlines including Qantas, to do our best to look at all the contingencies for getting Australians out of Bangkok.

Anyone who is in Bangkok should exercise extreme caution. If you're in your hotel room you should stay there.

TRIOLI: Stephen Smith, thanks so much for joining us today.

SMITH: Thank you.

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