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Australia rushes to troubled East Timor

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

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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.

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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.