Fake Muslim flyer row flares in Australia election

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CANBERRA, Nov 22 (Reuters) A fake letter linking Muslim extremists to Australia's opposition Labor Party and blamed on conservative supporters has entangled Prime Minister John Howard in a damaging row days before a national election.

The flyer, purporting to come from a non-existent Islamic Australia Federation, was dropped in letterboxes in a crucial Sydney seat and portrayed Labor as sympathisers of three men on death row in Indonesia over bombings in the tourist island of Bali in 2002.

Howard's Liberal Party said it had suspended two unidentified members over the hoax. Both parties referred it to Australia's electoral commission just two days before the November 24 election, in which polls point to a Labor victory.

''I condemn it, I dissociate myself from it. It is no part of my campaign and the party has acted promptly to deal with it,'' Howard told local radio. The bogus pamphlet applauded Labor for supporting bombers ''unjustly'' sentenced to death and praised the party for allowing a controversial Muslim sheikh, who compared immodestly dressed women to uncovered meat, to live in Australia.

''We gratefully acknowledge Labors (sic) support to forgive our Muslim brothers who have been unjustly sentenced to death for the Bali bombings. Ala Akba (sic)'', or God is Great, the pamphlet said.

The damaging row looked likely to overshadow a televised address to the nation by Howard later today.

Howard said the flyer was ''wrong, unfair and dishonest'', and it was outrageous to link Labor to the Bali bombers, blamed for the deaths of 88 Australians among 202 others.

''I knew nothing about this until I was informed that it had occurred and can I say that the Liberal Party organisation has acted with lightning speed,'' he said.

The western Sydney seat is held by retiring conservative MP Jackie Kelly, a former minister and close confidante of Howard, who condemned the flyer and said she knew nothing about it.

''I think it's intent is to be a send-up, but it obviously hasn't worked,'' she told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.

With Labor needing to pick up 16 seats for victory, Kelly's seat may prove vital in an election likely to rest on outer Sydney electorates where many home owners have been hurt by rising interest rates.

The row follows controversy about small numbers of Islamic extremists in Australia's Muslim community. Far right politician Pauline Hanson, who a decade ago called for an Asian immigration ban, is campaigning this time for a freeze on Muslim migrants.

''My first reaction was 'oh no, not again, not the Muslims again','' Australian Federation of Islamic Councils President Ikebal Patel said.

''At such a late stage in the election process to bring something like this up in a fake flyer going around is really quite despicable,'' he said.

Senior Labor lawmaker Anthony Albanese condemned the hoax.

''This isn't a lark, this is serious. This divides the Australian community,'' he said.

REUTERS TB BST0458

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