Subject: AU: Anzac force sees its Timor role as co-operation - DEFENCE: Special Report

Weekend Australian

November 25, 2006

Anzac force sees its Timor role as co-operation - DEFENCE: Special Report


THE United Nations wanted just one company of Australian troops to stay in East Timor to protect its headquarters and support an international police contingent in the wake of recent strife. But the view from Australia's defence force was that a larger force was necessary given the potential for continuing violence that has claimed more than 120 lives.

Brigadier Mal Rerden's Anzac battle group now comprises 925 diggers backed by a 120-strong company-size unit of Kiwis operating under national Australian rather than UN command as a ''green helmet force''. The taskforce, deployed under the code name Operation Astute, doesn't appear to be in any hurry to return home.

The unrest last month in Dili, resulting from clashes between rival martial arts gangs, underpinned the need for a continuing, robust security presence in Timor.

The UN police and Anzac battle group will need to be on high alert for political rabblerousers in the lead-up to potentially volatile national elections next May.

A UN special commission of inquiry into causes of the violent unrest in April-May 2006 has recommended criminal proceedings be instigated against former interior minister Rogerio Lobato for his role in the unlawful arming of civilian groups.

It said action should be taken against the defence force commander Brigadier-General Taur Matan Ruak, defence minister Roque Rodrigues and national police chief Paulo Martins for weapons offences. It recommended former prime minister Mari Alkatiri, an ally of Lobato, be further investigated in connection with the arming of civilians.

The infantry force currently consists of elements from 1st, 2nd and 6th battalions, Royal Australian Regiment. They are supported by M113 armoured personnel carriers from 3rd/4th Cavalry Regiment, five Blackhawk and four Kiowa observation helicopters.

Other ADF units in Dili include, 7th Combat Services Support Battalion, 17th Construction Squadron and a detachment from the 1st Military Police Battalion. A rifle company from the 2nd/1st Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment is integrated into the battle group, providing the Anzac designation.

Canberra won a protracted dispute with the UN, which, with Horta Government support, wanted the force to serve as blue helmets. Instead, Rerden reports to Joint Operations Command headquarters in Sydney.

The joint taskforce currently co-ordinates operations with the East Timor Government, UN Police command and through regular meetings with other non-government organisations. Defence co-operation between the ADF and F-FDTL (East Timor defence force) has also resumed following the April unrest.

ADF has 17 people deployed in East Timor assisting with a range of activities including staff training and capacity building in the country's defence ministry and defence force headquarters. The main focus has been English-language training, engineering, medical skilling, staff leadership and communications.

But given the F-FDTL's involvement in the recent unrest and the fact it has lost almost half its original 1500-strength due to desertions or internal ethnic dissent, major questions hang over its future.

One key area the ADF is likely to pay more interest to is development of a viable Timorese maritime surveillance capability, currently served by two obsolete Portuguese-donated Albatross patrol craft.

''Australia supports increased maritime co-operation with East Timor and we intend working with the East Timorese Government to identify ways in which the DCP (defence co-op program) can provide this enhanced assistance'', said a defence spokesman in reply to The Australian.

Prime Minister Jose Ramos Horta has frequently warned of the vulnerability of his country's coastline to illegal fishermen and people smugglers, concerns shared by Canberra.

Mark Dodd writes on foreign affairs and defence for The Australian.

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