World News

Australia leader plays down terror threat at Gallipoli event

By ROD McGUIRK
Posted: Apr. 25, 2019 7:00 am

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) Australia's prime minister on Thursday played down any potential link between the arrest of a suspected Islamic State group member in Turkey and a World War I battle commemoration attended by hundreds of Australians and New Zealanders at the Gallipoli peninsula.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison was responding to media reports that a detained the Syrian national had been planning an attack on the annual gathering for a dawn service at ANZAC Cove to mark the April 25, 1915, landing of Australian and New Zealand Army Corps troops in an ill-fated campaign to take the Dardanelles Straits.

Morrison said the arrest took place three driving hours from the Gallipoli service and no changes to security had been made as a result.

"The reports that we are receiving are inconclusive about any link between that arrest and any possible planned event at Gallipoli itself," Morrison told reporters. "In fact, to make that assumption would be, I think, making a very big assumption."

A Turkish official agreed that the 26-year-old suspect's arrest was not connected to the Gallipoli ceremonies. The suspect was detained in the northwestern province of Tekirdag because he had been in contact with a group of Islamic State group suspects near the Syrian border in the southern Turkish province of Osmaniye, the official said.

The official spoke to The AP on condition of anonymity in line with government regulations that bar civil servants from speaking publicly without prior authorization. It is not clear when the arrest took place.

Morrison said Australian Defense Force Chief Gen. Angus Campbell was representing Australia at the service and had nothing but praise for the work of Turkish police and military to provide security. The Australian government estimated more than 1,400 attended the service.

Concerns about Australians and New Zealanders' safety at Gallipoli escalated last month when a diplomatic row flared between Turkey and Australia after an Australian was arrested in the killings of 50 worshippers at two mosques in New Zealand on March 15.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned Australians and New Zealanders going to Turkey with anti-Muslim views would return home in coffins, like their ancestors who fought at Gallipoli.

Morrison slammed the comments as "highly offensive," but later said tensions had eased after Erdogan's office explained the president's words were "taken out of context."

ANZAC Day services were held throughout Australia and New Zealand on Thursday, with Britain's Prince William laying a wreath in the New Zealand city of Auckland.

The Duke of Cambridge will on Friday visit the mosques in Christchurch where 50 Muslims were killed and another 50 wounded.

Numbers attending the dawn service at Gallipoli have been down since the centenary in 2015.

Dennis Basham, global head of sales for On The Go Tours, said his company did not receive any requests from tourists to cancel trips to Gallipoli as a result of the tensions following the Christchurch massacre.

While Erdogan referred to Australian and New Zealand soldiers leaving Turkey in coffins, they were actually buried at Gallipoli.

A monument near the Australian War Memorial in Canberra to the Turks' victorious military commander at Gallipoli, Kemal Ataturk, is inscribed with his reassuring words to Australians that their war dead "are now lying in the soil of a friendly country."

Ataturk is quoted at the memorial as the first president of the Turkish Republic saying in 1934: "You, the mothers who sent their sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well."

But Neil James, chief executive of the security think tank Australian Defense Association, said Australians and New Zealanders should not expect that Turkey will always extend a welcome mat for large-scale Gallipoli commemorations. The battle is increasingly being seen in Turkey as a religious war.

"It's the Islamist nationals who are now running the show and I can actually foresee a time where we don't have major ceremonies at Gallipoli anymore because it just wouldn't be possible culturally and politically in Turkey," James said.

"What we've taken for granted as having access at the Turks pleasure to the Gallipoli peninsula might not be a long-term proposition," he said.

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Associated Press writer Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, contributed to this report.