Subject: Aussie troops 'still needed' in Timor, Aussie commander

Aussie troops 'still needed' in Timor

September 4, 2008, 4:52 pm

Australian troops in East Timor still have work to do in the fledgling nation, an Australian military leader says, despite East Timor 's prime minister saying a reduction in numbers could begin as early as next year.

"The training and support we provide is to the security and defence forces - it is not complete," Brigadier Mark Holmes told AAP.

"We still have a number of folk we would like to train more and obviously assist those forces to grow in their numbers and capabilities. It's not perfect."

Last year, Australia spent $120 million keeping around 700 troops in East Timor to support the 700 local soldiers.

But despite their presence in the country along with 1,500 United Nations police, a band of armed rebels managed to shoot President Jose Ramos Horta and attack Gusmao earlier this year.

Both the international troops and UN were criticised for their slow response to the attacks, and failure to immediately capture the rebels.

Local forces then spent two months hunting for the rebels in the mountains.

In defence of the Australian-led International Stabilisation Force (ISF), Brigadier Holmes said as the third line of security support after the East Timorese forces and the United Nations , his troops responded appropriately to directions by the government, but wouldn't elaborate.

Sources within the ISF say they didn't receive any direction from the government to pursue the rebels who fled to the hills and were in fact told to remain in Dili in order to prevent potential outbreaks of violence in light of the death of rebel leader Alfredo Reinado, who was shot dead in the attacks.

International Crisis Group analyst Anna Powles said it's difficult to say how much the ISF contribute to stability at a time when the role and autonomy of local forces is increasing.

"Earlier in 2006, 2007 it was very clear what (the ISF) role was, they were out on the street, responding (to unrest) every night, now it is not so clear.

"As things continue to become calm and as it is a police-led operation here in East Timor , with ISF support, the low threat level would suggest a decrease in numbers."

During a recent visit to Australia and New Zealand , Gusmao indicated he would consider a reduction in troop numbers next year.

Holmes said the decision to reduce international troop numbers is ultimately up to the Timorese government.

An East Timor government spokesperson said the situation is assessed on an ongoing basis and no final decisions have been made.

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