Subject: No Australian troops for Timor: Downer

Sydney Morning Herald

No Australian troops for Timor: Downer

April 29, 2006 - 7:12PM

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer has ruled out sending troops to East Timor, saying there is only so much Australia can do for the fledgling nation.

At least two people have been killed, hundreds of homes have been damaged and cars burned in violent protests that began in the capital Dili on Friday.

Several thousand protesters took to the streets for the third rally in a week supporting 591 soldiers who were sacked last month, weeks after they deserted their barracks complaining of discrimination and poor working conditions.

East Timor's President Xanana Gusmao has called for calm as he toured the city with local media.

Hundreds of soldiers were deployed across the capital at strategic locations on Saturay and seven people were arrested.

The streets of Dili were largely deserted, with most public transport not operating though a few taxis still sought fares.

Shops and markets remained shuttered but the airport was operating, though under tight security.

Mr Downer said on Saturday the Australian government was monitoring the situation but there were no plans to send troops there and the East Timorese government had not asked for them.

"We wouldn't consider it if we weren't invited and we wouldn't expect to be invited. No, we have no plans to send police or troops," Mr Downer told reporters in Adelaide today.

"We wouldn't even contemplate doing so unless we were invited to do so by the East Timorese, and we wouldn't expect there to be such an invitation."

Mr Downer warned Australians to stay away from East Timor.

"We've changed our travel advisory to warn people about the riots and the danger of the riots continuing, though we're not sure whether that will be the case or not," he said.

Opposition foreign affairs spokesman Kevin Rudd warned of guerrilla warfare on Australia's doorstep if the federal government did not help resolve the protests in Dili between police and the disgruntled soldiers.

Mr Downer should ask the United Nations "immediately to act as mediator between the East Timorese government and disaffected members of the East Timorese Defence Force," Mr Rudd said on Saturday.

President Gusmao, a former guerrilla leader who fought against the Indonesians during their 24-year occupation of the tiny nation, also said the incident was a lesson for the nation's political leaders.

"If there is an internal problem, it should be immediately settled, and not allowed to drag on," he said.

Gusmao also encouraged several hundred refugees outside the US embassy to return home.

An AFP correspondent with the president on his tour of Dili said one corpse was seen at Tacitolu on the outskirts of the town, but no information about the circumstances of the death were available.

"With sadness, I apologize to the people because they had to flee their homes because the situation ran out of control yesterday," the president told several thousand refugees sheltering at Dom Bosco seminary.

"But now, I ask that all be prepared to return home calmly because I have already talked with Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri and the situation has returned to normal," he said.

"I also call on the youth to remain calm and rebuild peace in this country."

A US embassy official told AFP, on condition of anonymity, that some staff members and their immediate families were being sheltered inside.

East Timor Police Commissioner Paulo Martins said 34 people had been injured in the unrest, in which some marchers wielding planks and steel pipes smashed windows outside Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri's office building.

The Associated Press reported four people were killed during the violent protest.

The rioters also burned at least five cars and Martins said about 100 homes were damaged in Dili's Tacitolu area, while a market was also badly damaged.

"Police have arrested seven rioters and they have been taken for questioning, while the rest of them are still hiding in the surrounding hills of Dili," he told reporters after meeting President Xanana Gusmao.

East Timor's Foreign Minister Jose Ramos-Horta said shortly after the violence that the dismissed soldiers had not taken part in the unrest.

Gastao Salsinha, the most senior of the dismissed soldiers has said that the troops, mainly from East Timor's 10 western districts, deserted because they were being passed over for promotion in favour of those from eastern districts.

Ramos-Horta said earlier this month the government was setting up a panel to review the complaints of the soldiers, who had made up about a third of East Timor's fledgling army.


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