Australia plans East Timor troops drawdown

Australia plans to withdraw 100 troops from East Timor by early 2009 because the security situation has improved since trouble erupted in the tiny Pacific nation two years ago, Australia’s defence minister said today.

The drawdown of the largest foreign force in the fledgling democracy indicates a steady improvement in security since Dili invited the Australians in May 2006 to send 1,300 troops to restore law and order during a political crisis.

Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon said 650 Australian troops would remain as a part of the International Stabilisation Force after the troop reduction at the beginning of next year. A further 140 New Zealand personnel would also remain in the 790-man force.

“The East Timorese authorities have shown through their professional handling of the security situation that the time is now right for some drawdown of the Australian ISF presence,” Mr Fitzgibbon said in a statement.

Australia, a near neighbour of East Timor, sent troops, war ships, helicopters and armoured troop carriers in 2006, when East Timorese police and army forces disintegrated into warring factions and the government collapsed amid widespread looting, arson and gang warfare.

Some of those rebel East Timorese troops were involved in assassination attempts in February again President Jose Ramos-Horta and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao.

Mr Ramos-Horta was shot twice and has since recovered, while Mr Gusmao managed to escape the gunmen who ambushed him on the same day.

Australia briefly boosted its security presence in East Timor after the attacks to more than 1,000 troops.

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