SINGAPORE, September 29, 2003  (STAR) Security at Philippine airports is among the weakest in Asia, analysts said yesterday.

Three security experts interviewed by the Agence France Presse said airports in Indonesia and the Philippines, particularly outside the capital cities, have lax security which terrorists could use to hijack planes.

A Singapore-based expert, Rohan Gunaratna, said the Philippines and Indonesia had some of the weakest aviation security measures in the Asia-Pacific, while Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong had the best.

The experts also named Thailand as one area of concern, with planes flying out of Bangkok’s international Don Muang airport relatively easy targets for surface-to-air missiles.

Analysts said security at Asia’s airports has been beefed up in the two years since the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States but there are still many weak links that leave the region vulnerable to terrorist strikes in the air.

The continuing post-Sept. 11 threat to airlines in Asia was highlighted this month when Thai security sources said captured alleged Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) leader Hambali had intended to attack aircraft in Bangkok with missiles.

Singapore’s Defense Minister Teo Chee Hean also raised the alarm this month when he said the city-state’s air force was constantly on guard against hijacked planes crashing into civilian or military targets here.

Singapore is regarded as a prime target for regional Islamic terrorist group JI.

It has been on a heightened state of alert since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States in which suicide squads hijacked commercial planes and flew them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Singapore authorities say JI had intended to crash a commercial plane into the city-state’s Changi airport but the plot was foiled with the arrests of more than 30 members of the group in 2001 and 2002.

"When you talk about airport security in Asia, most authorities are cognizant of the fact that they are terrorist targets," Andrew Tan, from Singapore’s Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies, said.

Tan said airport security had started to become a more pressing issue in Asia as far back as 1995, when authorities uncovered a plan by Islamic militants called Operation Bojinka to bomb 11 US commercial planes flying out of Asian cities.

"That alerted the authorities to the danger and the need to significantly step up security. From that time on we have seen a steady increase in measures to beef up airport security," he said.

The director of terrorism studies at the Australian National University, Clive Williams, said the overall threat of planes being used in Asia for terrorist attacks was low compared with car bombs and other more simple measures.

"I just don’t think they (Islamic militants) have got the capabilities to do very much with an aircraft ... It’s much harder to hijack a plane than it used to be," Williams said.

"I think they can have an effect without having to go to that much trouble. If you have a couple of car bombs, you could do something as effective."

Nevertheless Williams agreed with Tan and Gunaratna that surface-to-air missiles were a growing threat in Asia, especially after two shoulder-launched missiles were fired at an Israeli commercial jet in Kenya last November.

The trio cited the increased availability of those missiles from places as diverse as Russia, Pakistan, the Balkans and the Ukraine.

"Certainly al-Qaeda and its associate groups have the surface-to-air missile capability in the Horn of Africa and the Gulf region," Gunaratna said.

"And because they have access to shipping, it is only a matter of time before they are transported to other areas."

Tan said Bangkok’s Don Muang airport was the most obvious target for a surface-to-air missile strike because of its location so close to the city, next to a private golf course and with flight paths going over highways and populated areas.

"It makes it easy for someone to sit on top of a shopping center and fire a surface-to-air missile," Tan said, adding there was also cause for concern with hijacked planes in some of the smaller airports in Asia.

"In Indonesia it may be possible to hijack some regional airline and divert it to attack targets elsewhere in the region like Singapore." — AFP

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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