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Friday, Sept 11
Malaysia's ruling party youth leader refuses to step down
by Eileen Ng

KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 10 (AFP) - The youth wing leader of Malaysia's ruling party refused to step down Thursday despite criticism over his support for sacked deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim.

After a heated four-hour meeting with 24 other youth leaders, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said he would leave it to Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad -- president of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) -- to decide.

''After careful consideration, I have decided to surrender my position as youth wing leader to the (party) president and the supreme council to decide,'' Zahid told a news conference.

The supreme council is the highest decision-making body in UMNO, which is the dominant party in Malaysia's National Front coalition government.

''I think that is a fair decision because they cannot force me to resign. The only thing they can do is to appeal to the supreme council to sack me,'' he said.

As political turmoil stirred by the sacking of Anwar last week mounted, opposition leader Syed Husin Ali warned the crisis could lead to a state of emergency.

Police meanwhile seized tapes and leaflets distributed by supporters of Anwar, Bernama news agency reported.

The report, quoting Kuala Lumpur police chief Mohamad Ali, said the cassettes contained speeches made by Anwar, who has been holed up in his house for a week meeting supporters and sympathisers.

Zahid has come under pressure to resign because of his close association with Anwar, who was dismissed last week by Mahathir as deputy premier and finance minister, and subsequently expelled from UMNO.

Zahid has occasionally visited Anwar's Kuala Lumpur residence and made speeches in support of the former UMNO deputy president.

Sources said that 16 of the 25 youth leaders at the special meeting supported the call for Zahid to step down, four opposed while five abstained.

''There is no consensus on the call for him to resign. Zahid is still firm that he won't resign,'' a close aide of Zahid told AFP.

''They have not given any clear reason for wanting him to quit, apart from saying it's the grassroot wish.''

However, UMNO deputy youth leader Hishamuddin Hussein Onn said the decision to refer Zahid's status to the supreme council was to ''ensure unity and stability of the party.''

''A lot comes from the grassroot feeling that there must be a kind of stand by UMNO youth wing over the sacking of Anwar,'' he said after the special meeting.

''Today, we unanimously agree to give our fullest support to the prime minister, reject the reform movement initiated by Anwar and leave the issue of Zahid to the supreme council.''

At a separate news conference, Mahathir said UMNO can afford to let go certain party leaders who support Anwar, although he did not name anyone.

''There is no ban. (If) they want to go (and visit him), they can go,'' he said. ''We have 2.4 million members. So you can spare that two or three people. They can stay there permanently.''

Syed Husin, president of the Malaysian Peoples' Party said the sacking of Anwar and the resulting political uncertainty could balloon into a state of emergency.

''If the economic crisis worsens and the support given to Anwar increases to such an extent that Mahathir's power is challenge and the unity of UMNO undermined, there is every possibility that some desperate elements within governement could provoke an ethnic conflict,'' he said in a statement.

''Under such a dangerous situation it would be easy for Mahathir to declare another state of emergency or carry out yet another cycle of mass arrests under the ISA,'' he added, referring to the country's draconian Internal Security Act which allows for detention without trial.

Although no formal charges have been laid, Anwar has been accused of sexual impropriety, jeopardising national security, bribery, interfering with police investigations, tampering with evidence, abuse of power and sedition.

Anwar alleged the charges were all part of a high-level conspiracy but Mahathir said Tuesday that his decision to fire Anwar was based on ''moral" grounds rather than being politically motivated.