Subject: AFP: Australia denies role in ousting East Timor PM

Agence France Presse -- English

June 29, 2006 Thursday 6:30 AM GMT

Australia denies role in ousting East Timor PM

SYDNEY, June 29 2006

Canberra Thursday denied charges that it was involved in ousting East Timor's prime minister Mari Alkatiri, as Australian soldiers faced a new outbreak of political unrest in the impoverished country.

"It's absolutely false that Australia has intervened in any way in the political line-up in East Timor," said Treasurer Peter Costello.

Australia has some 1,500 troops and police in the tiny Pacific nation, and Alkatiri's supporters have accused Canberra of orchestrating the premier's downfall after weeks of violence and political wrangling.

"Those troops are there at the invitation of the president and the then prime minister Mr Alkatiri, so they were asked to be there," Costello told commercial television.

"To claim that they've engaged in domestic politics is absolutely false and I can say that for a fact."

Alkatiri resigned under pressure from President Xanana Gusmao Monday after being blamed for fighting that broke out between factions of the military and police and degenerated into gang violence in the capital Dili.

About 2,500 foreign peacekeepers, from Australia, New Zealand, Portugal and Malaysia, were deployed to restore order.

But tensions have risen again since Alkatiri's resignation, with stone-throwing youths attacking refugee camps and torching homes Wednesday as thousands of his supporters threatened to march on Dili.

Costello's denial of Australian involvement in the ousting of Alkatiri was widely accepted by Australian analysts.

"Nobody who has made any of these claims has presented one shred of evidence," an East Timor expert at Deakin University, Damien Kingsbury, told AFP.

"There's no doubt the Australian government doesn't like Alkatiri," he said, adding that Alkatiri also appeared to have a personal dislike of Australia and it was "perfectly legimitate" for governments to dislike each other.

Canberra resented the hard line Alkatiri took in negotiations over the division of billions of dollars of revenue from oil and gas deposits in the Timor Sea before a deal was finally signed earlier this year, Kingsbury said.

He was also seen as authoritarian and as having excluded Australian interests in favour of the former colonial ruler, Portugal.

But far from Australia having provoked the unrest in East Timor in order to oust Alkatiri, it was caught unprepared by the eruption of violence, he said.

Malcolm Cook, Asia-Pacific program director for Australia's independent Lowy Institute think-tank, agreed that Australia had not set out to topple Alkatiri.

"My feeling is it's much more the opposite, that the political breakdown in East Timor caught Australia by suprise and they would definitely prefer not to be there than to be there," Cook said.

Peter Abigail, director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, told AFP: "Given the experience the Australian government has had with Alkatiri, I think there probably wouldn't be too many tears shed.

"But I think that's a long way away from any Australian government or agency trying to contrive this sort of overthrow."

Australia bears some responsibility, however, for failing to help East Timor overcome the poverty which has exacerbated tensions and made it easier for politicians to manipulate mobs, Kingsbury said.

"I think Australia was appalling in its treatment of East Timor over the oil and gas deal. And there's no question that had that been resolved more quickly and more generously that it would have improved East Timor's situation."

The dispute blew up when Australia, which headed a peacekeeping force that played a key role in East Timor's independence from Indonesia in 2002, insisted that a 1970s Timor Sea boundary agreed with Jakarta should remain in place.

That boundary gave Canberra two-thirds of the sea area and most of its energy resources, including 80 percent of the large Greater Sunrise field.

East Timor wanted the boundary to be set at the mid-point between the two countries, giving it most of the resources, but reluctantly agreed in January to defer any final decision for 50 years in exchange for a larger share of the revenue.

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