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East Timor troop decision after poll: Smith

Australian Associated Press - April 15, 2011

Karlis Salna – Defence Minister Stephen Smith says a full assessment of a planned withdrawal of Australian troops from East Timor will be made in conjunction with the government in Dili following elections to be held next year.

Mr Smith, who met with various East Timorese officials in Dili on Friday, said Australia was pleased with the current security situation in East Timor.

However, he said all parties agreed it was premature to make a final decision on plans to hand over full control of the country's security to East Timor forces.

"We need to take it step by step. We're very pleased with the enhanced security arrangements and conditions, very pleased with the stabilisation effect as we know it now," Mr Smith told reporters in Dili on Friday.

"We think, as does Timor-Leste, that the appropriate point to start making judgments about these matters is in the aftermath of the 2012 elections."

Australia has 400 defence personnel in East Timor as part of what was a larger International Stabilisation Force (ISF), initially deployed following the country's near-collapse in 2006 amid political tension and violence.

Along with a contingent of United Nations security personnel, they are scheduled to withdraw following next year's elections.

The comments, made as Mr Smith emerged from a 40-minute meeting at the Presidential Palace with President Jose Ramos-Horta, came in the wake of an Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) report earlier this week which suggested a military presence may be required until 2020.

Mr Smith, when asked about the ASPI report, reiterated that a full assessment of the security situation would be made after the 2012 elections.

"We need, together with our International Stabilisation Force partner New Zealand, together with Timor-Leste and together with the United Nations, to make judgments in the aftermath of the election about these matters," he said.

"But currently we are confident we will see a successful election. We hope to see a full and free election, we hope to see everyone respecting the outcome of the election, whatever that outcome is."

Dr Ramos-Horta has already dismissed the ASPI report, telling AAP that the political tensions seen in East Timor in 2006 were now "almost non-existent". "If we were to continue to need a strong international police force, it's an admission of failure of leadership," he said.

Mr Smith said Australia's proposal that a regional refugee processing centre be built in East Timor was not discussed with Dr Ramos-Horta, who remains one of the few political voices in the country yet to fully reject the idea.

It was also not discussed at an earlier meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Jose Luis Guterres, who less than two weeks ago made the point that it had been unanimously rejected by East Timor's parliament.

Mr Smith said it was not an issue that could be expected to be raised in the context of his visit. "It's a matter for the relevant portfolio ministers," he said.

"As (Immigration Minister Chris) Bowen has said recently in the aftermath of the Bali Process meetings, and as President Horta himself has said, these matters remain under ongoing discussions between the relevant ministers and the relevant officials."

The defence minister, whose trip to Dili marked the 10th anniversary of the defence partnership agreement between Australia and East Timor, also had lunch with Australian troops stationed in Dili.

"We've been here for a number of years now, both in good times and in bad times," he said. "They're making a terrific contribution."