Subject: Howard feared for Diggers in Timor

The Australian

Howard fear for Diggers in Timor

John Lyons | November 03, 2008

JOHN Howard braced himself for the possibility of up to 30 Australian soldiers being killed by the Indonesian military when he made his decision to send troops to intervene in East Timor.

The former prime minister said he considered this outcome was possible in a firefight soonafter the arrival of Australian troops in 1999 as part ofthe International Force for East Timor.

"I had at the back of my mind they might have an encounter with the Indonesians, there might be a firefight right at the beginning," he says.

"You could lose 20 or 30 troops in a clash and it was tough. I mean, it was tough for them and you know, it certainly preoccupied me."

Mr Howard makes the revelation during one of his interviews in The Howard Years, a four-part series to be screened on ABC television from November 17. The ABC conducted 180 hours of interviews, including 20 hours with Mr Howard, in an examination of him and his administration.

The Interfet intervention followed a dramatic change of policy by the Australian government. Mr Howard wrote to then Indonesian president BJHabibie on December 19, 1998, telling him Australia was for the first time backing self-determination for East Timor.

Mr Howard reveals that not only did Dr Habibie agree to that, but went much further and voiced support for independence. "It is true that none of us had envisaged that's what Dr Habibie would've done," Mr Howard says.

"Dr Habibie went further, but the direction in which he travelled was the same direction that was requested in the letter. It's just that he went much further. He was 20 miles instead of five."

Admiral Chris Barrie, then chief of the Defence Force, tells The Howard Years that war with Indonesia could have resulted from the intervention.

"These were uncertain grounds, uncertain areas for us," he says.

One of the key decision makers involved in the East Timor operation, Hugh White, said yesterday that casualties could have been "much bigger".

Mr White, at the time deputy secretary (strategy and intelligence) in the Defence Department, told The Australian: "Inretrospect we look back at East Timor through the lens of an operation that went very well, and achieved its objective with little difficulty and very little loss of life.

"At the time the decision was made, we did not know that was going to be the case, and did not assume that was thecase."

Mr White said the US and Australian forces had contingency plans in case the conflict escalated.

He said the US had a large amphibious unit of "a couple of thousand" troops positioned off the East Timor capital of Dili as a signal to the Indonesians that any escalation of the conflict on the island would be matched.

And the Australian military had ships and aircraft ready to reinforce the ground troops, he said.

Mr White said there were several scenarios under which escalation could have occurred.

One was that of some elements of the Indonesian military, the TNI, deciding to resist Interfet.

Another was that of the government of Dr Habibie changing its position to one of hostility towards the Interfet intervention in East Timor.

"Interfet succeeded as well as it did largely because Habibie and the TNI allowed it to succeed," Mr White said

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