Cynthia Banham, Dili – The Minister for Defence, Brendan Nelson, has warned of an imminent humanitarian crisis in East Timor if camps for internally displaced people are not moved before the wet season.
After meeting the acting United Nations special representative to East Timor, Finn Reskd-Nielsen, in Dili Dr Nelson said it was extremely important for the East Timorese Government to move quickly to relocate the camps because once the rain started they would be flooded and become a sea of mud.
"We will have a crisis on our hands," Dr Nelson said. He said the rains could begin any day.
Dr Nelson also said he would also consider reducing the number of troops in East Timor, after a two-day visit in which the commander of the Australian force, Brigadier Mal Rerden, said the 950 troops now on the ground was more than sufficient for the mission. However, there are safety concerns following the murder this week of two foreigners in Dili, one of them a Brazilian missionary.
Brigadier Rerden described a period of increasing stability and calm. "The UN police now are slowly reaching the level where they've got a good capability.
"That's also having an impact on the streets. We're able to let the police now take primacy in the day-to-day law enforcement and we provide backup and support in the event of something big happening."
Dr Nelson met Australian commanders and the East Timorese Prime Minister, Jose Ramos-Horta. A scheduled talk with the President, Xanana Gusmao, was cancelled by the President.
Dr Nelson said a part of the purpose of the visit was to get an on-the-ground feel for the security environment. "Part of it is reviewing the size of the force composition," he said.
He said he would discuss troop numbers with the Prime Minister, John Howard, and the Chief of Defence Force, Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, at a meeting of the national security cabinet when he returned.
"It is possible that we might have a slight reduction at some time in the not too distant future," Dr Nelson said.
He said he had reiterated Australia's commitment to East Timor to Dr Ramos-Horta. He also discussed plans for helping to train the East Timorese defence force and provide training for maritime and border protection.
The leaders also discussed security arrangements for elections scheduled for May. Australia also wanted to develop an agreement with Dili that formalised the way Australian forces operated with those of East Timor and the UN.
"What's important is we have a clear understanding of how we work and how we work co-operatively with Timor Leste," Dr Nelson said.
Brigadier Rerden said there was still some gang activity in Dili, though the Government was making efforts to engage local youth groups. He said some of the gang violence appeared to be orchestrated or controlled and was aimed at having a political effect.
Some of the violence, in particular, had been directed against the Australian presence, though there was a lot of support for the Australian Defence Force from the populace. One senior officer told the Herald there was a lot of anti- Australian feeling in the ruling party Fretilin, which is still headed by the deposed prime minister, Mari Alkatiri, who continues to exercise significant influence in the country.