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Australia PM willing to send troops to East Timor

By Staff
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CANBERRA, May 5 (Reuters) Australia is willing to send troops to tiny neighbouring East Timor after deadly protests by disgruntled soldiers and wants the United Nations to consider extending its mission.

Prime Minister John Howard said today he would consider sending troops to the East Timor capital Dili but only if asked.

''I certainly hope that the possibility (of sending troops) doesn't come along. I hope that they can resolve things internally,'' Howard told Australian radio.

Australia led a U.N.-backed intervention force to East Timor in 1999 to quell violence by pro-Indonesian militias after East Timorese voted for independence from Jakarta. An estimated 1,000 people died in the violence.

Australia's military deployment to East Timor soured relations with Indonesia for several years.

U.N. peacekeepers left a year ago and the U.N. mission, which numbered 11,000 troops and civilians when first authorised, was scaled back to 130 administrators, police and military advisers. It is scheduled to finish in East Timor on May 20.

''I think we've got to give positive consideration to extending the U.N. mission in East Timor,'' Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer told reporters.

''I had been hoping that it might be possible to wind it up fairly soon, but in the light of what's happened, perhaps that would be premature.'' The cash-strapped East Timor government dismissed more than 500 soldiers earlier in April, prompting demonstrations joined by people the government says have broader motives.

Four people were killed and hundreds of East Timorese fled their homes when a protest last Friday turned violent. Protesters burned cars, threw rocks at police and officers fired into the crowd.

Australia already has troops deployed in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Middle East, Sudan and the Solomon Islands.

It sent nearly 400 troops and 70 police to the Solomons late last month after the election of a new prime minister sparked violent protests and the impoverished South Pacific nation asked for help to restore law and order.

REUTERS CH ND0958

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