Subject: SMH: Howard seeks meeting on East Timor pull-out

Sydney Morning Herald August 17, 2001

PM seeks meeting on East Timor pull-out

By Mark Riley, Herald Correspondent in New York

The Prime Minister has asked to meet with the United Nations Secretary-General, Mr Kofi Annan, as the UN comes under pressure to accelerate its withdrawal from East Timor and leave an even greater bill to Australia and its regional partners.

Mr Howard wants the meeting to be included in his American visit next month so he can put his views to Mr Annan before the UN head makes his decision on the withdrawal in October.

A group of countries, led by France, is arguing the UN should encourage Australia and its neighbours to accept responsibility for ongoing civil and administrative assistance in East Timor.

This would allow the UN to pull out much of its civilian staff soon after this month's East Timorese elections and divert some of its resources to growing conflicts in Africa.

It would also relieve France and the others of their funding obligations to East Timor and increase the burden on Australia and other Asia-Pacific countries.

The diplomatic push has led to a flurry of backroom discussions at the UN Security Council in the past week. Diplomats say the issue has not reached crisis point and see Mr Howard's visit as a way of ensuring it does not.

France believes Australia and its Asia-Pacific neighbours should accept the same level of responsibility in East Timor as the NATO allies have in the Balkans. It says the move would be consistent with the UN's objective of seeking regional solutions to regional problems.

Although most of the UN discussions have focused on civil and administrative assistance, diplomats are concerned the push could extend to peacekeeping.

Mr Howard would be expected to tell Mr Annan Australia was opposed to any UN withdrawal that would expose East Timor to security threats or leave it with inadequate administrative assistance. Australia would also argue against any shift to regional responsibility that placed an unfair burden on Asia-Pacific partners.

The proposed meeting would come at a crucial time in East Timor's independence process, closely following the national elections and preceding Mr Annan's final report on the UN's role in the country's future.

The report, expected in October, has fuelled diplomatic lobbying at the UN's New York headquarters. During Security Council discussions last month, all countries supported a gradual withdrawal that would be shaped by any emerging security or administrative problems.

However, several countries have voiced different views in closed-door discussions since.

Mr Annan's recent report on East Timor, delivered to the Security Council in May, has been interpreted as signalling a reduction in the peacekeeping force from more than 9,000 soldiers to between 5,000 and 6,000. The scaling down is expected to begin late this year or early next year. Diplomats expect the most important fight to come when the Security Council debates the timetable for phasing out the remaining peacekeepers. That could be as soon as October, when the council meets to discuss Mr Annan's final report.

Mr Howard will fly to the United States on September 8 for a 10-day visit. He will meet for the first time with President George Bush and will address Congress on the ANZUS alliance and the prickly issue of free trade.

He now hopes to add a meeting with Mr Annan to a three-day stop in New York after the Washington leg of his trip.

Mr Annan, who is travelling in Africa, has not yet replied to the Prime Minister's request. However, UN sources said he was likely to agree to the meeting.

Mr Howard's New York stopover will coincide with the formal opening of the UN General Assembly's next session. Mr Annan has already set aside substantial time that week to meet visiting heads of state.

Mr Howard is also expected to meet Wall Street leaders to continue his promotion of Australia's investment opportunities.

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