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PM defends Timor troops

May 29, 2006 10:52am

Article from: AAP

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PRIME Minister John Howard has rejected criticism that Australian troops were not acting quickly enough to quell violence in East Timor.

The 1300-strong Australian force has struggled to restore order in the capital Dili, with locals saying the soldiers are not moving fast enough to stem ethnic gang violence.

But Mr Howard today told critics to back off, saying the situation in Timor was potentially even more dangerous than the country's bloody separation from Indonesia in 1999.

"I do think people who are saying ... the army should be acting more quickly ... frankly ought to pull back and keep quiet and let them do their job," he told ABC radio.

"It's their lives who are on the line, and this is not easy – this is quite a dangerous operation.

"You're dealing with a whole lot of disparate uncontrolled gangs and in a way it's more dangerous than what it was in 1999, because in 1999 you had in effect an ordered retreat, not the disparate disorganised number of gangs that you're dealing with (now)."

Australian troops have together with Malaysian and New Zealand soldiers pledged to disarm the gangs, but groups continued to rampage through Dili yesterday, beating rivals and torching homes but melting away when soldiers arrived.

World Vision chief executive Tim Costello said in Dili that Australian soldiers were seen as the only form of safety for both locals and aid agency workers.

But he told ABC radio: "It's just at the moment, (there) doesn't seem to be enough of them.

"I came here fully expecting... I'd see a couple of soldiers on each street corner, which would settle everything down, that's not the case, you still see the gangs of young people just looting."

Mr Howard said Australian troops were on the ground within 24 hours of Dili's request for help last week – a response he described as "a world record".

Australia would consider more humanitarian aid for the country but the fundamental problem, he said, was East Timor's failure to govern itself effectively.

"We cannot have a situation around the world and particularly in our region where Australia is told to respect the independence of a country and that it's a bully boy if it seeks to express a view or to intervene, but when something goes wrong Australia is then criticised for not having, quote, intervened earlier," Mr Howard said.

"We have done exactly the right thing with East Timor, we helped East Timor secure her independence in 1999, led that operation.

"We stayed for a long period of time as part of the United Nations force and then the United Nations decided it was time to let them run their own show.

"Sadly, they haven't done a very good job of it.

"We'll be encouraging them to run their own show again, we'll be giving them help, we'll be giving them advice, but in the end if it is to be an independent country, East Timor has got to run itself."

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