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NADI, Fiji (Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, June 17) - Laid-back, palm-fringed South Pacific islands are being targeted by international criminals because of a lack of policing resources, making them vulnerable to terror groups, a regional forum warned yesterday.

"The vulnerability of our region to transnational organized crime means that it is also vulnerable to terrorist activities," said South Pacific Forum Secretary-General Greg Urwin.

"It seems well demonstrated that the networks that establish and maintain transnational criminal activities can also maintain and fund terrorist activities," Mr Urwin said in an address to the forum’s regional security committee in the Fijian city of Nadi.

Urwin, an Australian, said the underdeveloped nature that made the South Pacific attractive to tourists also left it susceptible to terror groups who could stage an attack on a tourist destination, like the nightclub bombings in Bali in 2002, or use the South Pacific islands as a training ground and staging post for attacks.

Tourism is the South Pacific’s biggest industry, with one million people passing through the islands each year.

But Urwin said many island nations had discounted the prospects of a "terrorist attack."

"The Pacific might represent a tempting target, either for an attack like the one in Bali, or as a base from which terrorist cells might undertake the planning and groundwork for an attack elsewhere," he said.

Urwin said transnational criminal gangs traded in drugs, people, weapons, money laundering, identity fraud — all the same areas that terror groups used to fund and stage their attacks.

He cited the biggest methamphetamine drug bust in the southern hemisphere last week in Suva as proof islands were firmly in the sight of transnational criminal gangs.

"We are being targeted because of our lack of strong uniform legislation and inadequacies in human, financial and technical resources," Urwin said.

After the September 11, 2001, airliner attacks in the United States, countries have agreed to implement new airport security measures, such as X-ray luggage screening, metal detectors and tighter passenger checks, from 2006 and new port security from July 1. But cash-strapped South Pacific island governments were struggling to afford the new security upgrades.

Island budgets, many reliant heavily on aid from Australia, New Zealand, China, Japan and the European Union, already have to cope with a range of security issues apart from terror.

"Combating terrorism itself has not, surprisingly, been seen as a top priority for Forum island countries," he said.

Security upgrades at South Pacific airports and ports are often being funded through aid.

Australians and New Zealanders are by far the greatest number of tourists in the Pacific and their governments are spending millions of dollars on security upgrades in 11 island nations.

Australia has sent four high-tech metal screening devices to Papua New Guinea’s main airport after a man in March carried a handgun onto an Air Niugini flight to Singapore.

Both Australia and New Zealand have warned their Pacific neighbors they may refuse landing rights to aircraft and close their ports to ships from Pacific nations with lax security.

June 17, 2004

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