Subject: War grave desecration
Transcript: The Hon Dr Craig Emerson MP, Acting Minister for Foreign Affairs, Minister for Trade, E&OE, proof only
7 March 2012
NEIL MITCHELL: First, on the line is the acting Foreign Minister, Craig Emerson. Good Morning.
CRAIG EMERSON: Hi Neil.
MITCHELL: The desecrated graves, 50 out of 55 Australian graves. Is that correct?
EMERSON: That's right. Yeah that's a preliminary estimate, but it's the best one we have.
MITCHELL: Do you believe they were targeted?
EMERSON: It appears not, although, I can understand how people would say well 50 out of 55 is a very large number. They were actually located near the Cross of Sacrifice which was the primary target. This is a cemetery which has got more than 1000 people buried in it, and the Australian graves were very close to that Cross of Sacrifice, but all nationalities were affected in this terrible act of vandalism.
MITCHELL: Does it seem as though the vandalism is more a matter of a sort geographical thing? They've gone to that area and attacked…
EMERSON: That's right Neil.
EMERSON: It's no excuse. It doesn't ameliorate the angst, the outrage obviously felt by all Australians but also by the National Transitional Council in Libya and they have put out a press release apologising, describing it as a disgusting and shameful attack.
MITCHELL: Have you heard anything of the people accused of doing this?
EMERSON: I was told when I contacted the Libyan Ambassador on Sunday that some young people had been detained. Obviously we want a full investigation and certainly the National Transitional Council does too, and it's cooperating fully and making sure they do everything to bring these vandals to justice and to understand the motives behind this. It's a sickening attack and has been strongly condemned. And we are assured too by the government in Libya that the people of Libya share the outrage of the people of Australia and of other countries over this.
MITCHELL: Good. Any indication of the motivation of the attack?
EMERSON: Not yet, and it wouldn't be helpful to speculate about it. That's really the purpose of the investigation and to bring these people to justice. We've got people who are obviously keen to work on repairing the graves as quickly as possible.
MITCHELL: So when would you hope to have them fixed?
EMERSON: It'll be a little while realistically because they need to be re-carved; you know the actual headstones need to be re-carved.
MITCHELL: They're that badly damaged are they?
EMERSON: I think some of them are. That's the best reports we have, that it's really quite bad damage. So we need to do that, but there will be markers put in the ground to indicate the names of the poor soldiers who lost their lives.
MITCHELL: So does the Australian Government take responsibility for fixing this, or not?
EMERSON: We do it with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Neil. It's a large number of Australians — about 238 war graves overall, 50 of them Australians — so we'll be doing it collaboratively with particularly the Brits, but it'll be done under the auspice of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
MITCHELL: Will the families of the Australians involved be notified if you can find them?
EMERSON: Yeah we do have a bit of a list and there is contact being made with the families by the Department of Veterans' Affairs.
MITCHELL: And do we need to look at security at these sorts of cemeteries in the future?
EMERSON: I think so. I mean, let's bear in mind that Libya is a country in transition after the removal of Qaddafi. There is a National Transitional Council, which we work with very closely — we supported them before the overthrow of Qaddafi. They are literally making the transition to a democracy. But this does mean that we'll need to ensure that there is proper security at this grave. And there is a British war grave in Bengasi as well, and it was very badly damaged too.
MITCHELL: Well look, thank you very much for speaking to us, I appreciate it on such short time.
EMERSON: No worries. Thanks Neil.
MITCHELL: Thank you. The Acting Foreign Minister, Craig Emerson.
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