MALAYSIAN Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has warned he would consider it an act of war if Australia was to launch any pre-emptive strike against terrorist cells in countries in Asia.
Dr Mahathir accused Australia of hypocrisy on human rights.
"This country stands out like a sore thumb trying to impose its European values in Asia as if it is the good old days when people can shoot Aboriginals without caring about human rights," he said.
"We will hold this as an attempt to wage war against the Government and the country if Australia pursues its intention to attack any country to tackle terrorism," he said.
"If they enter without permission, then we will consider this an infiltration by a foreign power and we will take action according to our country's laws."
But Prime Minister John Howard stood firm in the face of the criticism yesterday, insisting he had made no mistake and relations in the region were solid.
"I made those remarks very carefully in a very low-key fashion," he said. "They were quite accurate . . . they weren't directed at any of our friends and anybody who read those remarks would come to that conclusion.
"I don't believe that our relations have been damaged by those statements at all. I think they are known and understood for what they are and that is a statement of the obvious and I don't resile in any way from them."
Labor's foreign affairs spokesman Kevin Rudd rejected talk of a pre-emptive strike against another country. He said diplomatic channels should be used to crack down on terrorist cells in countries near Australia.
"I'd say the duty of the Prime Minister under those circumstances is to pick up the telephone to his counterpart in the relevant country in South-East Asia and say, 'We need your help now to fix an urgent problem'," he said.
The Democrats and the Greens continued to protest at Mr Howard's remarks, accusing him of creating unrest in the Asian region and damaging ties with important neighbouring countries.
"The prospects of working together with people in our region while that sort of rubbish hangs over diplomatic dialogue are going to be harmed," Australian Democrats leader Andrew Bartlett said.
The United States stepped in to back Mr Howard yesterday, with President George Bush's spokesman saying Mr Howard was simply echoing US policy
"The President of course supports pre-emptive action," Ari Fleischer said. "He has said that is part of America's doctrine because of the different nature of terrorism.
"It requires a fresh approach to protect the country. Other nations think it through, as well, and come to similar conclusions. Australia has been a stalwart ally of the United States in the war on terror."