Malaysia fury at Al Gore's 'interference'

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A SUMMIT of Asian, American and Pacific leaders degenerated into bickering yesterday as the American Vice-President, Al Gore, was accused by the Malaysian government of encouraging political enemies bent on overthrowing it.

In a furious response to a speech delivered by Mr Gore on Monday night, the Malaysian Foreign Minister, Abdullah Badawi, accused him of "gross interference in the internal affairs of the country ... Malaysia finds the incitement by the US government to lawlessness by certain elements within the country to use undemocratic means in order to overthrow a constitutionally elected government, most abhorrent."

Mr Gore defended his remarks, in which he praised the "brave people of Malaysia" and spoke approvingly of the political reform movement, which has gathered momentum since the sacking and arrest in September of the former deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim.

"My point is very simple: these economies have some very difficult choices to make for reform to move forward. Democracy and freedom are the essential prerequisites for making those kinds of decisions and getting that kind of support," he said before a meeting with the Russian Prime Minister, Yevgeny Primakov.

"That is the American message and I am proud to deliver it here and anywhere I go."

Even before Mr Gore's speech, the annual summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum (Apec) was foundering, but in the diplomatic row between Malaysia and the US the worst fears of its participants have crystallised.

The meeting's principal goal - the promotion of free trade between its 21 members - has already become bogged down in a disagreement over trade liberalisation between Western countries and Japan. Now the task of finding ways of overcoming the Asian economic crisis is also complicated. Yesterday's meetings were dominated by reaction to the American position, as Apec members aligned themselves with or against Mr Gore.

"It was a beautiful speech," said the Filipino president, Joseph Estrada, one of the first heads of state to speak out on behalf of Mr Anwar, who is standing trial for sodomy and corruption, charges that are widely suspected of being politically motivated.

Other leaders, including those of Singapore and New Zealand, criticised Mr Gore for disrupting the summit."You don't necessarily achieve desirable outcomes by constantly hectoring other nations in order to change the way they run their lives," said the Australian Prime Minister, John Howard.

Two hundred supporters of Mr Anwar demanded the resignation of the Malaysian Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, yesterday and burnt images of him in demonstrations in Kuala Lumpur.

In the past few days, police have used tear gas and water cannon and even fired warning shots to break up similar demonstrations. Mr Abdullah said yesterday that Malaysia "would hold the US accountable for any rupture of ... harmony arising from this irresponsible incitement".

Even before Mr Gore's speech the Malaysians were indignant about several meetings between Apec participants and Mr Anwar's wife, Wan Azizah Ismail, who has taken over leadership of the reform movement since her husband's arrest. The American Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, offered Mrs Azizah support, as did ministers from Canada and New Zealand.

The American announcement yesterday of a $10bn (pounds 6.1bn) support package for the stricken economies of South-east Asia was eclipsed by the furore. During a team photograph, Mr Gore stood at the opposite end of the line from the Malaysian Prime Minister, and the two avoided one another during a staged walkabout in the grounds of the hotel where the leaders are meeting.

US officials said Mr Gore was giving the same speech that was to have been delivered by President Bill Clinton, until he cancelled his attendance to deal with the crisis over Iraq.