Australia rushes to troubled East Timor
East Timor's call for help Wednesday opened a new mission for an already stretched military.
Australian and other foreign troops were preparing to head for East Timor Wednesday after the former Portuguese colony issued an urgent appeal for help to quell weeks of unrest.Skip to next paragraph
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Intense fighting between government forces and renegade soldiers in the tiny island nation left two people dead and at least nine injured in the latest clashes. The government in Dili asked Australia and New Zealand to send soldiers, and for Malaysia and Portugal to send police.
Canberra will shoulder the lion's share of the deployment, and was planning to send a battalion of up to 1,300 troops as well as helicopters and armored vehicles. Three warships already on standby in northern Australian waters will also be deployed.
For Australia, this is the latest in a string of recent deployments to neighboring failing nations. While often viewed with suspicion by some of its Asian neighbors, small, troubled states in the South Pacific often welcome military intervention by the country they have come to regard as a mostly benign Big Brother. But Australia's willingness to play this role, as well as its increasing commitments to the war on terror, is straining its military.
"Things are very tight at the moment and they are certainly stretched," says Neil James, chief executive of the Australia Defence Association, a strategic think tank. "The nightmare scenario would be a serious law-and-order breakdown in Papua New Guinea. The Australian Army is just not big enough to even safely evacuate all the foreign expatriates there. And it's certainly not strong enough to put down any serious fighting."
The pressures on Australia's military - which includes some 52,000 active-duty personnel and 20,000 reserve forces - are growing. The country was among the first to commit troops to the US-led invasion of Iraq and now has about 1,400 military personnel there - miniscule by US or British standards, but politically significant for Canberra. Australia has also sent 550 troops to Afghanistan, including a special forces task force.
Another 400 soldiers are in the Solomon Islands, following violence in the wake of a bribery-tainted election last month. Years of civil war and ethnic feuding prompted the Solomons to request an intervention by a large Australian-led peacekeeping force in 2003. The majority of Australia's current force there will be recalled, the government announced Wednesday, but there are other trouble spots that might require assistance.
Canberra is keeping a nervous eye on Papua New Guinea's autonomous province of Bougainville, where a self-proclaimed jungle king threatens to launch an armed revolt. In 2004, PNG accepted - although later rejected - hundreds of Australian police to combat crime and corruption.
The Royal Australian Navy has been dispatched to northern waters to prevent refugees from the restive Indonesian province of Papua from reaching Australian soil after the issue recently caused a breakdown in relations with Jakarta.
Compounding the problem, the government has pledged to send another 240 soldiers to Afghanistan in July as part of a provincial reconstruction team.