Subject: ABC: AM - Downer says troops must remain in East Timor ABC Online

AM - Downer says troops must remain in East Timor

This is the print version of story> 

AM - Tuesday, 5 September , 2006 08:16:00 Reporter: Gillian Bradford

TONY EASTLEY: The Foreign Minister Alexander Downer joins us now on AM. He's just returned from East Timor and he's not overly impressed with what he saw there.

The 57 prisoners who escaped last week are still on the run and may have access to high-powered weapons. It's one of the reasons Mr Downer says a much bigger military presence will have to remain in the country than even the United Nations has recommended. And of course, on his mind is the shooting in Jordan as well.

With Mr Downer in our Canberra studio is Gillian Bradford.

GILLIAN BRADFORD: Well, Mr Downer, good morning.

ALEXANDER DOWNER: Morning, Gillian.

GILLIAN BRADFORD: Tell us what you know of this shooting in Amman. Jordan's Interior Minister has described it as a terrorist attack.

ALEXANDER DOWNER: Well, it may have been, I mean, we can only go on the advice that the Jordanians give us, but clearly, there was a gunman who opened fire on tourists at a Roman amphitheatre, and it's very regrettable that there were casualties, and the young Australian girl is lucky to have only been grazed by a bullet, and she's okay, so that's a great relief.

GILLIAN BRADFORD: How high are the risks in that area, do you see any need to update the travel advice?

ALEXANDER DOWNER: Well, I don't know about updating it, I mean, the travel advice warns against possible terrorist attacks. We make it perfectly clear in countries like Jordan, there are very high risks of terrorist attacks, of course. There have been some terrible terrorist attacks in Jordan over the last few years.

I mean, I just can only repeat that people must make up their own minds about where they travel in the world, but please read the travel advisories that DFAT put on the website and you can get from travel agents.

GILLIAN BRADFORD: I mean, the Middle East generally, is it a place you would recommend that your kids travel in?

ALEXANDER DOWNER: No, I wouldn't. I would discourage my kids from going to the Middle East in general. It would depend a little bit where they wanted to go - some countries are safer than others, some parts of some countries are safer than others - but generally my advice to people is, if you, kind of particularly your own children, your loved ones, when you think so passionately about them, you advise them to keep to places which are safe.

GILLIAN BRADFORD: Before we turn to East Timor, minister, I know you called Steve Irwin a friend of yours, I suppose he was one of those ambassadors that money couldn't buy?

ALEXANDER DOWNER: Absolutely, that's beautifully put. He was a stunningly effective ambassador for Australia, he really did Australia proud.

He was... not just a combination... it was a combination of things, he's had a charming personality, he was a great bloke, enormously sincere person, but also had an enormous knowledge of animals and was able to bring so much of that to people's living rooms around the world.

I mean, particularly be was a great ambassador for Australia in the United States, he will be very, very sadly missed.

GILLIAN BRADFORD: Now, you have just returned from East Timor, and it's not such a happy picture, the 57 prisoners are still on the run, there are hundreds of police and army guns still unaccounted for, how big a threat is that combination to the stability of the country?

ALEXANDER DOWNER: Well, I think it is a threat. You've got a series of problems in East Timor.

First of all there's still, what you might call 'random violence' there, gangs roaming around.

I mean, while I was there yesterday the Australian Federal Police told me that there were two incidents where gangs were hurling rocks at each other in parts of Dili, we had to go around one part of Dili rather than go through it, which was our original route, because there were gangs hurling rocks there.

They say that is a daily occurrence in Dili. Added to that the 57 who have escaped from prison - leaving aside Major Reinado, the other 56 almost all of whom are in jail for murder - are dangerous people.

And you've got some high velocity automatic military weapons out there in the community, nobody really knows where they are.

The Australian Defence Force have collected, I think, about 1,000 rifles but there are still a lot of other guns out there in East Timor, so I think the situation is still reasonably dangerous there.

GILLIAN BRADFORD: And what are the chances of recapturing these 57, if for a week the Army and police haven't been able to track them down?

ALEXANDER DOWNER: It's quite worrying, they're hard obviously to recapture, they can spread though the hills, and it's difficult to find people.

I think they're going to do some publicising of who these people are, and put out photographs and so on, so that the local communities turn them in, because that's probably the only way they're going to catch them.

GILLIAN BRADFORD: Why do you think the UN only advised a force of 350? You yourself say double that, nearly double that is necessary in the country. What do you know that the UN doesn't?

ALEXANDER DOWNER: Well, I don't know what other people know. I mean, I know what I know, I suppose is the best way of putting it.

But I think the idea of having 1,600 police is good. I thought that was ambitious, because it would be hard to get 1,600 international police under blue berets, but they're confident they can do that. And so I think that will be enough police.

But I do think there should be military back-up in case the worst happens, and bearing in mind the sort of things we've just been talking about, you can imagine, look, not that things will go badly wrong, but they could go badly wrong.

Now, all the UN has done is provide for 350 blue-helmeted soldiers... well, their proposal was to have 350 blue-helmeted soldiers who could provide protection for the UN in the event of there being some serious breakdown in security. I don't think that's sufficient.

I think you have to have soldiers who can go in and sort out the problem. And from our point of view, our military are looking at keeping around 650 or so soldiers there, and then there will be soldiers from other countries, in particular New Zealand.

Now, this is unresolved, by the way, because the UN... a lot of people in the secretariat to the UN and some members of the Security Council want the UN proposal to go ahead, and I 'm trying to ensure that this green-helmeted idea with a bigger force is the prevailing view, so we'll have to wait and see.

GILLIAN BRADFORD: You think that's what's needed to do the job properly?

ALEXANDER DOWNER: I do, I do, and I don't think you want a situation where the military in an emergency are trying to get onto New York and get approval from officials in New York to do this, that and the other. I think the military should be able to go and do the job quickly and effectively.

Now, they can do that at the moment under the arrangements we have with the East Timor Government and as I said to Xanana Gusmao and Jose Ramos Horta yesterday, that's the best way, let's keep it that way.

GILLIAN BRADFORD: Mr Downer, thanks for joining AM.

ALEXANDER DOWNER: It's a pleasure.

TONY EASTLEY: And the Foreign Minister Alexander Downer speaking there with Gillian Bradford.

Back to September menu 
World Leaders Contact List
Main Postings Menu