Subject: SMH: Timor presence to be rebalanced: PM

Sydney Morning Herald

Timor presence to be rebalanced: PM

Lindsay Murdoch in Dili July 19, 2006

AUSTRALIA'S military presence in East Timor will be wound back, starting with at least 300 personnel, the Prime Minister, John Howard, announced during a flying visit to the country's violence-ravaged capital Dili.

The force, which peaked at more than 3000 in early June, would not be withdrawn "prematurely", he said yesterday.

After driving past camps where tens of thousands of displaced people are still living, Mr Howard said the time had come for the Australian military presence to be "rebalanced".

"We have done our job and been very effective," he said. "Clearly the security situation here has vastly improved on what it was even a month ago, or even a few weeks ago. We can expect over the time ahead for there to be not only some gradual reduction but also a rebalancing of the force."

The navy's amphibious landing ship HMAS Kanimbla, which has a crew of 220, and a number of Black Hawk helicopters and their crews would return to Australia soon, Mr Howard said.

After that, there would still be 2000 Australian military personnel in East Timor. "That is still a very big commitment," he said.

Mr Howard said he had made it clear to East Timorese leaders, including the newly sworn-in Prime Minister, Jose Ramos Horta, that Australia would not have troops in the country indefinitely.

He said it was important for the country's leaders to be encouraged to "make the changes that are needed". Mr Ramos Horta wants Australia to lead a United Nations peacekeeping force in East Timor for at least two years. Mr Howard has given no commitment on the proposition.

But there would need to be a significant number of Australian troops or police in the country in the lead-up to the elections in May 2007, he said.

Life appears to be returning to normal in Dili, but tensions are likely to rise tomorrow when the deposed prime minister, Mari Alkatiri, appears in court. The former interior minister, Rogerio Lobato, claims Mr Alkatiri had "full knowledge" of a so-called hit squad allegedly set up to kill political rivals. Mr Alkatiri denies the allegation.

Aid officials say up to 100,000 displaced people in camps across Dili are too afraid to return home.

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