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Thursday, 5 December 2002
Page: 7275

Senator HOGG (2:01 PM) —My question is to Senator Hill, Minister for Defence and Minister representing the Prime Minister. Given the deterioration in the security situation in East Timor in recent days, what information can the minister provide on the security of Australian citizens and military personnel in East Timor? Given that the 1,200 military personnel in East Timor are currently serving in a peacekeeping role, what is the current position in relation to their involvement in civilian functions such as policing and the maintenance of law and order? Has the government received any requests from the East Timorese government for the role of ADF personnel to be upgraded from that which was provided under the UN mandate: to assist in the restoration of law and order?

Senator HILL (Minister for Defence) —There has been a large civil disturbance in Dili involving about 600 people. Regrettably, several people are believed to have been killed and there was considerable damage to property. That was the situation yesterday; I am told that the situation today is calm but tense. Two AFP officers sustained minor injuries, one requiring medical treatment, when the UN police compound was stormed. No other Australians were injured. Our embassy advised Australians registered with the embassy to remain indoors. Australians in the affected areas were evacuated. We are continuing to monitor the situation closely, and the welfare of Australians is our top priority.

The government obviously condemns the violence in the strongest possible terms. There is no excuse to resort to this action for any local grievance. The Prime Minister, Mr Howard, called Prime Minister Alkatiri this morning to convey the government's sympathy about the loss of life and damage caused by the unrest. Prime Minister Alkatiri's own residence was burned to the ground. The Prime Minister conveyed to him that it was the task of his government to resolve the situation but that Australia, as East Timor's friend, was obviously willing to help if it was requested. Prime Minister Howard told him we were willing to do what we could to help them develop the capacity to better handle law and order problems. He said that we will be looking at additional assistance to help develop the capacity of the East Timor police service and judiciary. I understand that Prime Minister Alkatiri appreciated the call and the expressions of concern and support from Australia.

The UN forces that assisted yesterday were principally the Portuguese force, because Dili is in their area of operations. I think they received some support also from the Fijian force, but I am not sure of the details of that. Obviously, Australian military forces—I will put it this way—are able to look after themselves, and I am sure that they can handle that side of the matter. In relation to Australian civilians, I have covered that in the earlier part of the answer.

Senator HOGG —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Noting your answer, Minister, has there been a request for the role of ADF personnel to be upgraded in terms of the UN mandate that currently exists? Minister, what action has been taken by the government to ensure the safety of the 1,500 Australian civilians estimated to be in East Timor? Has the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade upgraded its travel warnings for East Timor? Are there any plans for an evacuation of Australians from East Timor?

Senator HILL (Minister for Defence) —I do not know of any requests for upgrading. I am not sure exactly what is meant by that. The restriction is that in matters of internal security the Australian force can provide passive support. If it is to be more than passive support then it would need my approval. That has not been sought. In relation to the latest travel advisory, I should be able to provide that at the end of question time. There is no intention that I am aware of to move anybody out of East Timor.