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Ramos-Horta says ADF must leave after 2012

Australian Associated Press - April 12, 2011

Karlis Salna – East Timor's President Jose Ramos-Horta has dismissed suggestions Australian forces should remain in the fledgling nation beyond a planned 2012 withdrawal.

While conceding some of the social and economic problems that contributed to the violence seen in East Timor in 2006 still remain, the president insists political tensions in the country are now virtually non-existent.

The comments come in the wake of a report released earlier this week by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) which warned the withdrawal could pave the way for fresh unrest.

The report suggested Australia, which is set to withdraw its 400-strong contingent following elections next year, should maintain a military presence in East Timor beyond 2012, and possibly until 2020, to prevent or respond to further crises.

But Mr Ramos-Horta, who was appointed acting prime minister and then prime minister during the 2006 unrest, has dismissed the report, saying the withdrawal of international forces must go ahead as planned.

"I disagree with that assessment," he told AAP, in response to the ASPI report. "The United Nations will leave here in 2012, by the end of 2012. The ISF will leave. They already have less than 500 men and women in this country from a height of 3500 in 2006," he said.

While he has no executive power in his role as president – a position he took over from current Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao following the 2007 elections – Mr Ramos-Horta remains an influential figure in East Timorese politics.

He said there was a "strong, sincere commitment" by all sides of politics in East Timor to ensure the violence seen in 2006 is not repeated. "The political tensions in the country are almost non-existent now," he said.

"It has been 10 years since independence. A country has to be on its own, on its own feet. If we were to continue to need a strong international police force, it's an admission of failure of leadership."

Mr Ramos-Horta also described warnings in the ASPI report about the growing influence of China as a "nonsense".

"The increasing assertiveness and almost certain expansion of China's 'soft power' approach towards East Timor will challenge Canberra's political influence," the government-funded Canberra think-tank said in its report.

Mr Ramos-Horta said the soft power approach employed by China was "nothing new", adding that the United States and other nations used similar methods to project influence in the region.

"Of course China is a major regional power, with aspirations to be a global power. They use soft-power approach," Mr Ramos-Horta said.

"The US foreign aid is very much condition(al)... aid is part of foreign policy too. (There's) nothing wrong with that. I don't disagree with American approach, using their aid as part of soft power diplomacy."