Subject: Scent of militia is still in the air

Townsville Bulletin

December 22, 2001, Saturday

Scent of militia is still in the air

Max Blenkin in Dili

IN two months in East Timor, the soldiers of the Townsville-based 2nd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, have not fired a shot in anger, let alone sighted any of the infamous militia.

But that does not mean they are prepared to write them off as a completely spent force.

The Australian Defence Force believes there is still a hard core of militia living in the refugee camps of West Timor, where they remain ready to cause trouble should the opportunity arise.

"They still have the capability to cause security concerns in East Timor, " 2RAR executive officer Major Mick Reilly said in a briefing to Defence Minister Robert Hill during his visit to Balibo this week.

"They are still able to come across. We cannot stop everyone."

Commander of the western sector, Australian Brigadier Richard Wilson, agreed.

"We still cannot discount the militia but their numbers are much reduced," he said.

The reality is, however, that little has been seen of the militia for the better part of a year after a series of contacts in which Australian troops intercepted militia intruders.

Far from the ragtag thugs who terrorised Dili following the pro-independence ballot, those encountered by the diggers were switched-on soldiers armed with modern weapons.

They lost just the same.

The militia cause has not been helped by the noise from Jakarta which has taken a tougher line on its former proteges.

However, the ADF is not convinced the militia-TNI friendship has ended entirely, as one of the Indonesian Territorial infantry battalions currently stationed on the western side of the border was based in Dili in 1999.

"There is an ongoing, but appears to be low, risk of contact with the target force," said 2RAR commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel Angus Campbell.

With the expected drawdown of UN troop numbers, Australia will bring home several hundred, mostly from the areas of support and logistics.

The next major event occurs in May, when the United Nations officially hands over control of East Timor to the new East Timorese administration.

Senator Hill said it would be up to the new nation's government to decide what outside assistance it continued to need.

"We would not want to understate the challenges for the future and the Australian people are proud of what Australia has been able to contribute towards the development of an independent nation," he said.

"They are very supportive of the government continuing to invest in the future stability and economic growth of East Timor.

"At best I can work out it is a good relationship and the East Timorese people are very pleased with the relationship with Australia as well."

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