Australian troops land in East Timor

Friday, May 26, 2006

Wikinews Australia has in-depth coverage of this issue: 2006 East Timor crisis

After approximately 150 Australian troops from 4 Royal Australian Regiment (Commandos) secured Comoro airport in Dili yesterday, the total number of Australian troops in East Timor has risen to 600, with a further 1200 in transit or directly supporting Operation Astute. Malaysia, New Zealand and Portugal have also begun their deployments. Malaysia has now sent 25 military officers ahead of its 500 strong commitment of military and police personnel; New Zealand has committed two C-130s, and an infantry company is on standby pending negotiations over rules of engagement; Portugal's 120-strong commitment has commenced preparations, but is not expected to arrive for a matter of weeks. The Australian contingent involved in Operation Astute has been placed under the command of Brigadier Michael Slater, who arrived in Dili this morning.

Currently, the Australian Department of Defence states Operation Astute's tasks are:

  1. to facilitate the evacuation of Australian and other foreign nationals as is appropriate and necessary;
  2. to stabilise the situation and facilitate the concentration of the various conflicting groups into safe and secure locations;
  3. to audit and account for the location of weapons that belong to each group; and
  4. to create a secure environment for the conduct of a successful dialogue to resolve the current crisis.

Australian forces are already actively operating in Dili; Infantry patrols are operating in the area, supported by the four Blackhawks from the 5th Aviation Regiment that have arrived so far. Blackhawks have also been operating missions above the hills around Dili to seek out rebel positions and communicate a strong presence to the rebel soldiers. Two Armoured Personnel Carriers and an infantry platoon have set up position in and around the UN Headquarters and Dili police station, which came under attack earlier today, and was the location of considerable violence yesterday when East Timorese army soldiers killed 12 East Timorese police and wounded numerous others, including 2 UN personnel. "At the moment things are relatively stable, the troops are arriving and we are establishing good control throughout the Dili area" BRIG Slater said of the situation.

Yesterday 80 Australian nationals were evacuated by RAAF C-130, a number that is rising as flights in and out of East Timor have been unhampered since the securing of Comoro airport. Approximately 800 Australian nationals were in East Timor at the beginning of conflict.

Events involving East Timor's government are complicating the situation. Reports state that Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri is reluctant to allow foreign troops to independently operate in the country and arguing with President Xanana Gusmao over who should control the small nation's still loyal military of 800 troops. After President Gusmao declared he had taken over command of the military and ordered all East Timorese military personnel to barracks, Alkatiri stated that he believed the President does not have a constitutional right to take control of the military, as that depends on a 'situation of emergency' being declared, which is itself dependent on the parliament.

According to Mark Thompson, a military budgeting specialist from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Operation Astute would cost a similar amount to Australia's earlier peacekeeping operation in East Timor - approximately $200 million.