Australia rushes to troubled East Timor

East Timor's call for help Wednesday opened a new mission for an already stretched military.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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."

A growing number of foreign commitments

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.

These commitments come at a time when the Army is facing recruitment problems. Both major political parties agree that it needs to recruit an extra 1,500 soldiers. It is already 1,500 men under strength. More than a decade of strong economic growth and a spate of bullying scandals within the defense forces have dissuaded young people from a military career.

So far Australia has successfully avoided "mission creep" in its deployments. It was winding down its forces in the Solomons until last month's unrest broke out, and in Iraq its commitment has been so small that so far it has not sustained a single combat casualty.

But the opposition Labor Party charges that the government has taken its eye off the South Pacific at the expense of big ticket contributions to the US-led war on terror.

"Labor ... has consistently argued that our real national interests in the war on terror lie in our own backyard: places such as Timor, the Solomons, Fiji, and PNG," analyst Glenn Milne wrote in The Australian newspaper recently. "Our defence assets are now dangerously overstretched."

The government rejects those accusations, pointing to its swift reaction to the rioting that broke out in the Solomons capital, Honiara, sparked by suspicions that the country's newly elected prime minister had been bankrolled by Taiwan.

During his US visit last week, Prime Minister John Howard briefed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on the "arc of instability" to Australia's north.

"The Pacific is our backyard and we are the country that has the prime responsibility for looking after the security exigencies as they arise," Mr. Howard said.

East Timor is familiar territory - seven years ago Australia spearheaded an international force to end a rampage by Indonesian troops and pro-Jakarta militias after the East Timorese voted for independence in a referendum.

The Australians put a stop to an orgy of violence which left thousands of people dead, injured, or homeless. Aussie "diggers," as the infantry is known, are still held in high esteem by the grateful East Timorese.

"The moment the Australian forces land in Timor, this will have an immediate calming throughout the country," said East Timor's foreign minister, Jose Ramos Horta.

Renegade soldiers in East Timor

But the mission may be more risky than Mr. Horta suggests. The Australians could find themselves caught in the crossfire between government troops and about 600 renegade soldiers who were fired in March when they deserted. They complained that they were discriminated against and faced suspicion from their commanders because they came from the western part of East Timor, close to the Indonesian border.

A rally in support of the soldiers turned violent last month after security forces opened fire on the crowd. Ensuing clashes left five people dead and forced more than 20,000 terrified residents to flee Dili. It was the worst violence in East Timor since the independence vote in 1999.

An Australian general will travel to Dili Thursday to set ground rules for the deployment of troops, who are expected to begin arriving shortly afterward.

"It's quite clear we need not only a well-trained force, we also need numbers," said Australia's Defence Minister Brendan Nelson.

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