Malaysia and the U.S. on Thursday signed an agreement to boost cooperation to fight terrorism, as a minister voiced concerns that deadly attacks in Paris could spark copycats in the region.
Under the pact, Deputy Prime Minister Zahid Hamidi said that Malaysia can access U.S. database of known and suspected "terrorists," including 1.2 million fingerprints, to prevent them from entering the country and using Malaysia as a transit hub.
"There is information that the Paris attacks could motivate other (terrorists) to launch similar attacks elsewhere," he said, adding that the government has enhanced security at every entry and exit points in the country. The simultaneous attacks in Paris last Friday at a stadium, concert hall and cafes left at least 129 people dead and hundreds wounded.
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"The Malaysian police will use the database fully to determine if any terrorists or suspected terrorists are in the country and to prevent foreign terrorists from using Malaysia as a transit hub," Zahid said.
Malaysia has arrested some 150 suspected supporters of the Islamic State group in the past two years, some of whom were allegedly plotting attacks in the country.
U.S. Ambassador Joseph Yun said that the agreement marked a milestone in joint efforts to fight militants. He said it will "provide a mechanism for sharing information about known and suspected terrorists" and those involved in criminal activities.
"All of these information will be exchanged through lawful process under clearly defined procedures in ensuring personal data are protected appropriately," Yun said.
The signing of the agreement comes just days ahead of President Barack Obama's second visit to Kuala Lumpur in two years for a regional summit.
Zahid said the pact will also help pave the way for Malaysia to participate in the U.S. visa waiver program, eventually allowing Malaysians to travel to the U.S. without visa for 90 days for tourism and business.
Malaysia had in October signed another key document with the U.S. for the visa waiver program, and is in the process of meeting other requirements, according to a joint statement. They include ensuring that the visa refusal rate by Malaysians entering the U.S. falls to below 3 percent, from 4.58 percent currently, and adhering to the reporting of lost and stolen travel documents to Interpol on a daily basis within 24 hours, it said.
Yun said he was optimistic that Malaysia will join the program soon but gave no timeframe.
A total of 38 countries have joined the U.S. visa waiver program, including two other Southeast Asian nations, Brunei and Singapore.