Hezbollah, Hamas Speakers Address Malaysian Opposition Conference

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia - Malaysia's fundamentalist Islamic opposition invited speakers from two pro-Palestinian militant groups to address a conference, where they urged Malays to support the Palestinians' struggle against Israel - including suicide bombings.

Leaders of the Pan-Malaysia Islamic Party said Thursday it did not have formal links with the groups - Hezbollah and Hamas. "But we meet at international forums and keep in touch," said Hatta Ramli, a senior party official and the conference's organizer.

Hatta described the militant groups as "freedom fighters of Islam" who "deserve the support of all Muslims." He said many party members believed that Palestinian suicide bombings were justified because they were "the only avenue left to stop Israeli atrocities."

Hatta named the speakers as Sheikh Hassan Abdullah, a senior member of Hezbollah, and Khalid Mash'al of Hamas and said they addressed a party conference Wednesday on the Palestinian issue.

Sheikh Hassan Abdullah flew in from London to deliver a speech, while Khalid Mash'al addressed the conference via telephone from an undisclosed location in the Middle East, Hatta said.

Hatta quoted the Hamas and Hezbollah officials as asking Malay Muslims to support Palestinians against Israel, including suicide bombers.

"Both officials said the suicide bombers are martyrs who gave their lives for the Palestinian cause," Hatta said.

A senior official at the home affairs ministry, speaking on customary condition of anonymity, said the government had nothing to do with the conference, although it was aware that the foreigners took part.

"These officials are from militant groups and their presence here can undermine efforts to portray Malaysia as a peaceful Islamic country," the official said.

The conference in Kota Bahru, about 400 kilometers northeast of Kuala Lumpur, came just before the opposition group holds its annual general assembly.

The assembly will try to address the party's waning support in recent month, given rising fears about Islamic radicalism in Southeast Asia since the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States.

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has in the past accused the fundamentalist party of fomenting extremism. The party denies it.

The government has detained without trial more than 60 Islamic militant suspects in the past 13 months whom it accuses of wanting to topple the government. A handful are members of the opposition party.

Mahathir, whose party competes against the Islamic party for support among the predominant Malay Muslim community, shares some common ground with the opposition.

Mahathir - who says Palestinian suicide bombers and Israeli troops should be both defined as terrorists if they attack civilians - shared a podium earlier this month with the opposition group's leader to condemn Israel's action in the Middle East.