19 September 2008

Australian Defence Minister gives East Timor troop guarantee

ABC News 19/09/2008 The Federal Defence Minister has told East Timor's Prime Minister, Xanana Gusmao, that Australia will not pull its 750 troops out of East Timor until it is certain the current level of stability will continue.

Joel Fitzgibbon gave the guarantee during a brief visit to East Timor.

Both countries agreed that international forces should remain in East Timor for at least another year, but Mr Fitzgibbon says there is a chance troop levels could be reduced.

"We will be guided by the Government of Timor Leste and we certainly won't be reducing that until we can be absolutely confident that a reduction in numbers won't lead to a reduction in the stability we have enjoyed," he said.

Foreign troops are still needed to ensure security in the wake of a foiled rebel attack on the country's leaders in February, Mr Gusmao told reporters alongside Mr Fitzgibbon.

The attack, which wounded the country's President Jose Ramos-Horta and left rebel leader Alfredo Reinado dead, raised fears of a return to chaos similar to 2006 fighting among soldiers and police that killed at least 37 people.

Mr Gusmao said he was responding to "conflicting reports" at home and abroad that a reduction in troops from Australia and New Zealand was imminent. "As a state, our security is still fragile and all must agree that the ISF (International Stabilisation Force) should remain for the next year," he said.

The Australian troops in East Timor make up the bulk of the ISF.

Mr Gusmao said the scope for unrest after the February attacks "may have been even worse than the 2006 crisis" but for the presence of international forces.

The East Timorese Government would look at the security situation before deciding whether to ask for a reduction in foreign troop numbers, he said.

Last week Mr Fitzgibbon said Australia would like to reduce its troops in East Timor "in the not too distant future".

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