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Howard meets with East Timor's new PM Ramos H -

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Howard meets with East Timor's new PM Ramos Horta

AM - Tuesday, 18 July , 2006 08:16:00

Reporter: Alexandra Kirk

TONY EASTLEY: The Prime Minister says it's "terrific news" that some Australians have managed to
leave Lebanon.

John Howard says the Federal Government is doing everything "humanly possible" to get stranded
Australians out of the war torn country.

Mr Howard this morning flies to East Timor, seven weeks after Australia dispatched troops to
restore peace and security there.

Mr Howard will be holding meetings with the new Prime Minister, Jose Ramos-Horta and East Timor's
President, Xanana Gusmao.

John Howard won't say how many troops will stay, or for how long, but he's pledged Australia's
commitment to East Timor's future.

He spoke to Alexandra Kirk.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: Prime Minister, East Timor's new Prime Minister Jose Ramos-Horta's been in the job
for a week now, it'll be his first meeting with a member of the Australian Government.

Are you going to Dili to throw Australia's full support behind the new Government arrangement?

JOHN HOWARD: Very much so. I want to talk to him in his new capacity.

I know him well from earlier meetings and earlier responsibilities, but I want to talk to him as
the newly installed Prime Minister.

I also want to personally thank the men and women of the Australian Defence Force and the police,
from the Federal Police and the State Police services, all of whom have done an absolutely
magnificent job in Australia's name.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: How soon do you expect East Timor to take charge of its own affairs?

JOHN HOWARD: I'm not going to try and put a date on that. I see it necessary for international
forces to remain in East Timor for some time, not in the same numbers as are there now, but it will
be some time before it would be prudent for all of them to go.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: What sort of numbers and what sort of timeframe?

JOHN HOWARD: I'm not going to hazard a prediction in either department, except to say that they'll
be needed for some time, not in as large numbers as are there now.

I can see a phasing down over a period of time, but I'm simply not going to get into trying to talk
about months or numbers. It'll need to be governed by the conditions of the time.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: The day after he was sworn in, Dr Ramos-Horta told this program that he wanted
Australian troops and police to stay for the rest of the year.

Will that happen?

JOHN HOWARD: Alexandra, we will need to have people there for some time. I'm simply not going to
play this game of months or weeks. I mean, we're just sort of wasting time asking the same
question. We will stay in such numbers for as long as necessary.

My broad prediction is that over time we will be able to reduce the numbers there, but I'm not
going to commit myself to a particular number by a particular time.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: And Dr Ramos-Horta wants Australia to lead the UN peacekeeping mission. Is that
your expectation?

JOHN HOWARD: Well, obviously if there is UN peacekeeping mission, if there were to be an
international force, then the question of... well - blue-helmeted force - the question of who led
it would be a matter for the United Nations. However, we're running ahead of ourselves.

At the moment we have an international force, the bulk of which is comprised by Australians and
we'll deal with those matters in the future.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: Dr Ramos-Horta wanted, irrespective of the UN peacekeeping mission that may be
formulated, for Australia to keep at least a battalion right to the end of next year.

Will you be telling him any good news on that front?

JOHN HOWARD: Well, Alex, you're asking me the same question again. We will keep forces there in
such numbers for as long as is appropriate, but I'm not going to commit myself to numbers or to
time. That will be governed by circumstances in East Timor as they unfold.

Our good will, our good intentions, our commitment to East Timor's future is well understood, not
only in East Timor, but around the world. We will always do the right thing by East Timor, but East
Timor must, of course, accept responsibility for her own future.

And no country can expect a blank cheque as far as the continued presence of forces of another
country, but I can assure the Prime Minister when I see him, that Australia will continue, as it
has in the past, to do the right thing by his country.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: On the issue of governance, does Australia have some suggestions to make?

JOHN HOWARD: Well, if I did I would give them to him first, before telegraphing them over an
interview.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: Prime Minister, the first Australians have now been successfully bussed out of
Lebanon.

More than 6,000 Australians, as I understand it, have now registered with the Embassy in Beirut. Do
you expect that most will want to leave Lebanon, and if so, how long will it take to get them out?

JOHN HOWARD: Well, it's impossible for me to answer either of those questions. I don't know whether
all of them will want to leave Lebanon, I think some of them will, some of them won't. We will do
our level best to get out as many as we can of those who want to get out.

I do ask people to understand that as we speak, attempts are being made in different ways to
arrange for people to be extracted. It's better not to give too many details of those arrangements,
I hope people understand that.

We fully appreciate the concern of Australians who have loved ones in Lebanon, and we are doing
everything we humanly we can and I've indicated that, Mr Downer's indicated that.

And the first are out and that's terrific news and I can promise the people who are so concerned
that we are working overtime to make other arrangements in all sorts of ways to try and get people
out, but it really doesn't help for me to start talking details or numbers or times or dates.

It's a very fraught and difficult, indeed chaotic, situation. But we have been in touch with
people.

The Foreign Minister has spoken to the Israeli Foreign Minister, we are working very hard to help
Australians who are in need of help and I hope people will understand that I can't give a running
commentary on every possibility. I don't even think it's in the interests of the people there that
I do so.

And I know how concerned and distressed and fraught people are, and I want to promise them that we
are doing everything we humanly can to help their loved ones.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: Mr Howard, finally, on the domestic front, as you predicted, voters have taken the
events of the past week in their stride.

Two polls show now that there's been no real damage to the Government, but the Liberal Party room
wants you to stay, it's clear, and they also say that an early announcement about your intentions
is what they're seeking.

If you are to make an announcement, will you tell your party room first before you tell the rest of
Australia?

JOHN HOWARD: Alex, I'm not going to respond to that question. I don't normally give running
commentaries on opinion polls. I've said all I propose to say on that whole issue. I've answered
questions like that time without number over the past few days and I have nothing to add to what I
previously said. I'm on the job, I'm doing the things that I was elected to do and I'll go on doing
those.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: In the past you've told your MPs before you've told everybody else. Does that
remain your operating and guiding principle?

JOHN HOWARD: Alex, I don't have anything to add to what I've previously said.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: Prime Minister, thanks for joining AM.

JOHN HOWARD: Thank you.

TONY EASTLEY: The Prime Minister, speaking there with Alexandra Kirk.