War fears spread across Asia

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War fears spread across Asia

Tuesday, September 18, 2001 at 09:30 JST

ISLAMABAD A growing sense of unease spread through Asia on Monday as troops massed on the Afghan-Pakistan border and regional stock markets plunged on fears of a global recession.

As Pakistani envoys held last-ditch talks with Afghanistan's ruling Taliban to try to avert a U.S. assault, tens of thousands of people streamed out of Afghan cities and headed for the borders with Iran and Pakistan.

Taliban officials were also fleeing the capital Kabul as the White House vowed retaliation by a "mighty giant" for last week's terror attacks on New York and Washington. Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden, sheltered by the Taliban, is the United States' prime suspect.

Indonesian Vice President Hamzah Haz warned hardline Islamic groups on Monday not to enter the country and seek to destabilise the world's largest Muslim nation. Malaysia said it was not a safe haven for terrorists.

U.S. media reports said a man believed to have been among the hijackers who crashed a passenger jet into the Pentagon last week had been videotaped meeting another militant in Malaysia last year.

Perhaps the country with the greatest sense of crisis is Pakistan.

While pledging to help the United States should it decide to strike Afghanistan, Islamic Pakistan faces growing hostility among its own hardline factions. The Taliban have also vowed to attack Pakistan if it does help Washington.

Late on Monday, the Taliban massed troops near the Pakistani border and positioned Scud missiles near the border as well.

Senior Pakistani officials met the reclusive spiritual leader of the Afghan Taliban on Monday to try to persuade him to hand over bin Laden and escape U.S. armed retaliation.

After the two sides held three hours of talks, the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press quoted Taliban spokesman Abdul Hai Mutamaen as saying that they had failed to resolve the key issue of turning over the multimillionaire Islamic militant.

"The meeting looked in detail at the aspects of the problem. The talks were positive but I cannot give the details," Mutamaen said. "We are 60% hopeful that conditions will be normal."

But on bin Laden, who the Taliban have termed a "guest," Mutamaen reported no progress. "There was no clear discussion on this particular topic," he said.

The ex-head of Pakistani military intelligence said Pakistan could erupt in popular protest, and India could be destabilised, if Islamabad lets U.S. troops in to attack Afghanistan.

"The price to pay would be high for everybody," General Hameed Gul said of any retaliatory attack from Pakistani soil. "Pakistan would be completely destabilised and that would have grave repercussions, especially for the United States," he was quoted as saying in the French newspaper Le Figaro on Monday.

Neighboring India said on Monday its troops had heightened vigilance along the Pakistan border after reports Islamabad had closed militant training camps.

An Indian army spokesman said there were fears that if Pakistan did crack down on guerrilla training camps, militants could be flushed into Indian-controlled Kashmir.

The Philippines, wary of extremist attacks, said it had placed its military and police on alert and was ready to "pay the price" of backing a U.S.-led anti-terror campaign.

Manila has long fought Muslim extremists in the country's south and a captured Philippine Muslim rebel leader has named bin Laden as a financier of his group, the military said on Monday.

But several other Southeast Asian nations urged the United States to investigate thoroughly before ordering retaliation for last week's terror attacks, Thai Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirathai said on Monday.

"Every country, including all in ASEAN (the Association of South East Asian Nations), would like to see the United States obtain clear-cut evidence and a thorough investigation before starting its operations," Surakiart told reporters.

U.S. military bases in Japan buzzed with activity on Monday as forces there prepared to play their part in any retaliation.

There were signs that preparations in Japan, home to about 48,000 U.S. military personnel, were intensifying with fighter planes conducting drills. A warship equipped with an Aegis missile defence system was seen leaving the huge U.S. naval base in Yokosuka, south of Tokyo.

Japanese police were also busy investigating reports that bin Laden followers may have entered Japan earlier this month, domestic media said.

With no end to the gloom, investors sold off shares across the region fearing a worldwide slump and a plunge in share prices when Wall Street reopens on Monday for the first time since last Tuesday's attacks.

Japan, Asia's biggest market, saw its benchmark Nikkei average ending down 5.04% at 9,504, its lowest since December 1983, while Hong Kong's Hang Seng Index fell 3.48% at 9,319.

In a measure of the crisis, the U.S. cut interest rates a little more than an hour before trading on Wall Street began, a move which might bring some relief to Asian investors. (Reuters News)


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), September 18, 2001

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