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Sunday, August 27, 2000
Sydney: why was possible nuclear plot kept a secret?

 SYDNEY, Australia (Reuters) -- Prime Minister John Howard was under pressure on Sunday to explain why it took five months to reveal a possible plot to blow up Australia's only nuclear reactor during the Sydney Olympics.

 Critics demanding the immediate closure of the plant on the outskirts of Sydney said the government put secrecy before public security in the biggest security scare to hit next month's Games.

 Ripples from the affair spread to New Zealand, centre of the reported plot, with Afghan refugees complaining their standing in the community had been harmed by extremist countrymen.

 The scare put a spotlight on Olympic security preparations with a warning that blood supplies in the event of a tragedy were inadequate.

 New South Wales state Health Minister Craig Knowles said supplies have dropped so low people may die during the Olympics unless stocks are replenished.

 "This could not be more serious," Knowles said in a statement. "The Olympics will place additional pressure on blood supply. Many regular donors will be away or preoccupied enjoying the excitement of the Games."

 Howard's government refused to bow to demands by residents for closure of the plant just 25 kilometres from the main Olympic stadium, saying details from New Zealand police of the plot did not amount to a credible threat.

 Police in New Zealand's largest city of Auckland were probing an immigration racket involving Afghan refugees in March when they stumbled on plans that appeared to point to an attack on Sydney's Lucas Heights research nuclear reactor.

 A group of Afghan refugees were found to have set up what police described as a command centre in a house, complete with a Sydney street map with the site of the reactor highlighted.

 There was also a notebook of police security tactics and chains of command for the Auckland Commonwealth Games in 1990.

 After the revelations appeared in the New Zealand Herald, ministers there and in Australia played down the threat, pointing out there had been no arrests for terrorist-linked activities, just four people detained on passport offences.

 The newspaper speculated the plot was linked to Saudi-born dissident Osama Bin Laden, who is accused of masterminding from a base in Afghanistan the deadly August 1998 bombings of United States embassies in Tanzania and Kenya.

 In Washington, a U.S. State Department official said at this moment its security forces were not part of the investigation.

 "Nevertheless we applaud the proactive efforts of New Zealand and Australian law enforcement officials investigating terrorist threats," the official said.

 But federal Senator Bob Brown of the small environmental Green Party said he wanted to know why it took five months for the possible terrorist threat to be made public.

 Residents near the reactor were also angry that they had not learned of the possible plot until it was revealed in the New Zealand newspaper.

 "It's really like 1970s Cold War mentality," said local council member Genevieve Rankin.

 "It's just not appropriate for the 21st century, to think that keeping the secret is more important than protecting residents or the international community."

 The New Zealand Press Association reported that Afghan groups there were worried about a backlash from the possible link to up to 20 extremist members of their community.

 "We just want to live like New Zealanders in a safe country, but if Afghanis have plotted this, then it's going to bring all of us under suspicion," the news agency quoted an Afghan leader saying.
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