Subject: Troops will stay, PM promises Dili

Also Rudd committed to Timor

The Age

December 15, 2007

Troops will stay, PM promises Dili;

RUDD IN TIMOR 'This is not completed. We've got a lot of work still to do in 2008'

Michelle Grattan, Dili

PRIME Minister Kevin Rudd has promised to keep Australian troops in East Timor until at least the end of next year.

Mr Rudd made the pledge during a quick visit to Dili yesterday on his way home from the Bali climate change conference.

During talks with Mr Rudd, East Timor President Jose Ramos Horta and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao stressed how important the 780 Australian force is to protecting the nation's fragile security environment.

Mr Rudd had lunch with Australian troops, saying Australia appreciated their efforts. "But this is not completed," he said. "We've got a lot of work still to do in 2008 . . .

Mr Rudd said that when Australian troops were sent abroad "every government that I speak to has nothing but praise for the way in which the Australian defence forces conduct themselves".

The Prime Minister also visited a small Australian hospital ward, chatting to soldiers who were laid low from ailments and accidents.

Private Michael Crank, who has been in Timor for two months and has facial and eye injuries from a nasty encounter with a bush, said Mr Rudd's visit was "something different".

Mr Gusmao and his wife, Australian-born Kirsty Sword, greeted Mr Rudd at the airport. The two men hugged each other.

Mr Ramos Horta also welcomed Mr Rudd as an old friend. After their meeting, the President recalled that the last time Mr Rudd was in East Timor it was "as aspiring prime minister". "He stayed at my place. We had a few drinks. We had a few meals together."

Mr Ramos Horta said he had reiterated to Mr Rudd that the East Timorese Government believed the international security force under the leadership of the Australians, and including 170 New Zealand defence personnel, should stay until the end of 2008 at least. The international police force should stay up to 2011.

"Our institutions remain fragile and we shouldn't make the mistakes of the past," he said, a reference to forces earlier leaving East Timor too soon.

Mr Rudd said he had a "longstanding personal friendship" with Mr Ramos Horta and the relationship between East Timor and Australia was important.

"This is a new democracy. It is a close neighbour. It is a country where Australians have a deep sense of commitment and friendship," he said.

Mr Rudd said he had noted what had been said about keeping the troops in East Timor and Australia stood ready to help with continuing security needs.

Later, at a news conference with Mr Gusmao, Mr Rudd said explicitly that the Australian Government had no objection to keeping the troops in East Timor in 2008, subject to a rolling review.

Mr Rudd invited the President and the Prime Minister to visit Australia soon to discuss co-operation between the two countries, especially to help East Timorese economic and educational development.

After leaving Dili, Mr Rudd flew to Darwin, where he will meet Aboriginal leaders today to discuss federal intervention in Northern Territory indigenous affairs.

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