|Subject: The Age: Rudd vows to stand by
The Age Lindsay Murdoch February 16, 2008
PRIME Minister Kevin Rudd has sent a blunt message to rebels who attacked East Timor's two top political leaders, warning that Australia will not allow the fledgling country's democracy to be threatened.
"It is by the ballot box and not by the barrel of a gun that the decisions of our countries will be made," Mr Rudd said yesterday after meeting the country's Prime Minister, Xanana Gusmao.
After his four-hour visit to the capital Dili, Mr Rudd visited the stricken President Jose Ramos Horta in Darwin. Mr Ramos Horta remains unconscious in the intensive care unit of the Royal Darwin Hospital and is being treated for gunshot wounds.
"I was pretty sad (to see him)," Mr Rudd said. "It's a terrible thing to see a democratically elected leader gunned down, and just on our doorstep. But … I know the old Jose, he's a fiighter, he's got a bit of a fight ahead of him still, but he's a fighter."
Mr Rudd described Mr Ramos Horta as a friend, having stayed at the house on Dili's outskirts where he was attacked.
He also visited Lieutenant Celestino Gomes, the presidential guard shot in the head at close quarters during the attack.
Gastao Salsinha, the rebels' new leader, yesterday said that security guards protecting Mr Ramos Horta started the gunfight on Monday that killed rebel leader Alfredo Reinado.
"It wasn't Major Alfredo who started the attack, it was the presidential security," Mr Salsinha told the BBC by telephone from an unknown location.
Mr Gusmao also backed away yesterday from describing the attacks as attempted assassinations, describing them as well co-ordinated ambushes.
The Age revealed on Thursday that United Nations investigators believe the attacks were kidnappings gone wrong.
Mr Salsinha, the commander of 600 soldiers who were sacked in 2006, prompting violent upheaval, confirmed that he had replaced Reinado as the leader of the heavily armed rebels, who have vowed not to surrender.
Mr Rudd told East Timor's leaders that Australia is not a "fair-weather friend" for the troubled nation of 1 million mostly impoverished people.
"We are here to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Government and people of Timor-Leste (East Timor) in this difficult time in their defence of democracy," he said. "Australia is here for the good times, the bad times and the difficult times."
Mr Rudd said that Australian troops would remain in East Timor for as long as they were wanted.
Within hours of Monday's attacks on Mr Ramos Horta and Mr Gusmao, Mr Rudd had authorised a group of more than 70 elite SAS commandos to fly to East Timor to lead the hunt for the rebels in the mountains. The commandos are being backed up by more than 1000 Australian and New Zealand troops serving in East Timor's International Stabilisation Force.
Mr Gusmao, who has authorised the Australians to use lethal force if necessary, told reporters after meeting Mr Rudd that East Timor is "ready to progress from volatility to stability and from fear to confidence".
"Many people ask, is this achievable in light of this week's events?" said Mr Gusmao, who escaped the attacks unharmed. "Yes, it is achievable, because a bullet can wound a president but it can never penetrate the values of democracy."
Officials in Dili said Mr Rudd's visit would help ease tensions in the country, where political figures are blaming each other for orchestrating the attacks.
As well as government leaders, Mr Rudd met Mari Alkatiri, the head of Fretilin, the country's largest political party, which was defeated in elections last year.
Mr Alkatiri has criticised Mr Rudd's decision to send more troops to the country, saying there are already enough foreign security forces if they do their jobs.
Mr Rudd flew into a city under a declared state of siege where 1600 United Nations police are enforcing a dusk-to-dawn curfew amid fears of fresh violence by the supporters of Reinado, who was a hero to many mainly young disaffected Timorese.
Arrangements for the visit were chaotic, with Atul Khare, the head of the UN mission in the country, only speaking with Mr Rudd briefly before he visited doctors and nurses at an Australian army clinic where Mr Ramos Horta was treated after the attack.
With BEN DOHERTY
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