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Foreign Minister discusses East Timor; Indonesia; and Afghanistan.



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MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS HON ALEXANDER DOWNER, MP TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE DATE: 25 May 2006 TITLE: 3AW Interview with Neil Mitchell NEIL MITCHELL: First today - confirmation that Australia is the policeman of the Pacific. We've got troops in the Solomons; we've had troops in Bougainville; we still have troops in Afghanistan; we have troops in Iraq; and now, today, more Australian troops going to what amounts to a war zone. We've got several ships on standby, and today we're sending in 1300 troops to East Timor. Now, I think it's necessary. I think it's unavoidable. I think we've got a responsibility there. But this will stretch our resources. But we have to do it. And the other big issue here is Indonesia. We're so sensitive about Indonesia; I doubt they'll be at all happy about Australian troops going into East Timor. Now, the Prime Minister is mid-air at the moment; flying back to Australia; flying back from Ireland; and I assume he's fully briefed on this, because it does amount, effectively to sending troops into a war zone. It is that dangerous. On the line, the Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer. Good morning. MINISTER DOWNER: Good morning Neil. MITCHELL: Now, you spoke to the Timorese Foreign Minister, José Ramos Horta. What did he say to you? What are the problems? What did he tell you? DOWNER: Well, here, there are two things really. One is the actual facts on the ground. The real concern they have about the former defence personnel mainly and some sympathisers forming a rebel group, and attacking various locations in Dili, and firefights that are breaking out. But secondly, he's emphasised very strongly what he calls the psychological effect of having Australian troops there - that the community are losing confidence as he's put it, in their own security forces. And so they feel that'll give the [indistinct] of East Timor tremendous comfort to have Australians and others there. MITCHELL: It sounds like a very dangerous situation we're heading into.

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DOWNER: It is quite dangerous. I wouldn't want to underestimate that. It is quite dangerous. There were 1400 people in their defence force, and they sacked 595 of them, and there are small, there is a small number of police and perhaps some military personnel who have gone over to support those people. So you probably have somewhere around 650 - 700 personnel who could be categorised as falling into the camp of the rebels. So it's a lot of people. Some of them have weapons, not all of them, but it is a dangerous environment.

MITCHELL: Have there been significant casualties yet?

DOWNER: There's certainly been one person killed and several injured. I don't have any update on that.

MITCHELL: And what's it about? Why are they doing it?

DOWNER: Well, there were 595 members of their defence force who were sacked because there was a dispute over pay and promotion issues in the main, other personnel issues. That wasn't resolved satisfactorily. So these people were sacked, went on strike, and were then sacked as a result of going on strike for insubordination. So, you know, whatever we may think about how that issue was handled. That's the decision the East Timorese government made. Now they're wrestling with the consequences.

MITCHELL: Is this civil war, or is it threatening civil war?

DOWNER: No, it's not threatening civil war. I mean civil war is where you have two, if you like, sort of political, opposing political forces within one country. It's much more of an insurrection if you like by these people, and more of a breakdown of law and order than an environment which you could describe as a civil war.

MITCHELL: Well would you hope on that basis that the Australian troops won't have to be there too long?

DOWNER: I would, yes. I wouldn't expect them to have to be there for very long. Hopefully it'll be analogous with the Solomon Islands deployment that we send them in, they stay there for a while, the situation stabilises, and then it's possible at least to withdraw some of them fairly quickly. But we'll just have to wait and see.

MITCHELL: You just wonder whether we're going to continually, over the years, have to involve ourselves in East Timor in this fashion. Do you think so?

DOWNER: I hope not. All I can say, do I think so? I simply don't know. We've always borne in mind we might have to do this, when you have a country which is a very new democracy. There are so many if you like, informal rules about how you make a democracy work. It's not just the, literally, the rule of law, but it's more than that.

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And, it's tough going. They've only been an independent country for a very few years and it's a poor country as well. It's the poorest country in Asia, as it's often said. Though they're going to get a flow - they are starting to get a good flow of revenue from the oil and gas in the Timor Sea. But, I mean, you know, it's tough going for them.

MITCHELL: Have you told the Indonesian Government what Australia's doing?

DOWNER: We have. I mean, first of all, last week, when I met with the Indonesia Foreign Minister, we had a bit of a discussion about this whole issue. I did say to him that we've got our troops ready and it was possible we might have to deploy. We've also yesterday notified the Indonesian Government in Jakarta about where we're up to with this issue. So I think that's actually been quite an important thing to do.

MITCHELL: Yeah, I agree. They're comfortable with it?

DOWNER: They say they are. I mean, I'm not sure, but they haven't been remonstrating with us or objecting so I assume that they feel comfortable enough with it. I mean, they can see that a country which is now a next door neighbour of theirs is going through a period of instability and that has to be dealt with. It's to their advantage that East Timor is stable. It's, I suppose, from their point of view a pity troops have to be deployed but it's maybe understandable. They certainly haven't objected.

MITCHELL: Just the final - finally, the mechanics of it - 1300 troops initially, is that correct?

DOWNER: Well, a battalion group up to1300, that sort of number yes.

MITCHELL: Will that be enough?

DOWNER: Well we think so. We think that will be more than enough which is usually the way the military like to operate. Obviously we have to go on the advice of the Chief of the Defence Force here. We leave it to him to make those kinds of determinations.

MITCHELL: And what naval vessels - the Kanimbla, Tobruk?

DOWNER: Yes, the Manoora and the Tobruk, and the Kanimbla, I think are the three ships involved. Also HMAS Adelaide is involved as well which is a frigate.

MITCHELL: Gee, we must be getting stretched with the, with the Solomons and Iraq and now this.

DOWNER: Well, and Afghanistan...

MITCHELL: And Afghanistan.

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DOWNER: We've got the troops in the Solomons being reduced though. So we'll end up with somewhere between 100 and about 150, somewhere between 130 and 200, but probably be around 150 left in the Solomon Islands. So we won't have a large number there once this is all, once the downsizing in Solomon Islands is complete. So we can certainly handle it.

MITCHELL: Have you spoken to the Prime Minister about this?

DOWNER: Of course. There's been a lot of discussion with the Prime Minister, particularly me - I was talking to him throughout yesterday into yesterday evening, and Peter Costello as the Acting Prime Minister has been talking to him. The Prime Minister has been on a plane coming back from Ireland but there's a phone on the plane so it's been possible to talk to him.

MITCHELL: Just finally Mr Downer, do the Australian people have to accept that effectively we're sending more troops into a war zone?

DOWNER: Well it's, well it depends how you define a war zone. It's a dangerous zone in any case. It's not a sort of literally a war zone in the way World War II was, or the Vietnam War, or even Iraq. It's not a situation which is as dangerous as that. But, nevertheless, there are dangers and there are risks. I mean people do have to accept that.

MITCHELL: Thank you very much for your time.

DOWNER: It's a pleasure.

ENDS