Political turmoil besets East Timor

The attempted assassinations of the president of East Timor, Jose Ramos-Horta, and PM Xanana Gusmao last Monday has shattered a period of relative calm in the Pacific nation. (report: Bryan Coll)


Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd vowed Friday his nation's troops would stay in East Timor as long as needed, following assassination bids on the president and prime minister this week.

Rudd jetted into Dili for a half-day visit in the wake of Monday's attacks, which critically wounded President Jose Ramos-Horta and threw the six-year-old democracy into fresh crisis.

"The purpose of my visit today is to state in clear and loud terms that Australia will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with East Timor into the future in defence of its democratic system of government," Rudd told a press briefing.

"Australia is here for the good times, the bad times and the difficult times," he said after meeting Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao, who was also ambushed on Monday, apparently by renegade soldiers, but survived uninjured.

Asked how long Australian troops -- whose figures were boosted by 350 in the wake of the attacks to some 1,000 -- would stay in the fledgling nation, Rudd said: "So long as they are invited here by the government of East Timor."

"Of course, we want to be partners in peace and long-term security. So we will always be open to our friends here in Dili as to what may be necessary in the future," he said.

"It is by the ballot box, not by the barrel of a gun, that decisions of our countries will be made."

East Timor has been under a state of emergency, with an evening-to-dawn curfew in place and gatherings banned, since the attacks blamed on rebels led by Alfredo Reinado who was killed in the gunfire.

The tiny nation was wracked by deadly unrest involving Reinado in 2006 when he emerged as the leader of a mutinous army faction complaining of ethnic bias, prompting the deployment of the international peacekeepers.

Rudd said he also discussed with Gusmao security and economic cooperation.

"Ensuring young people across Timor-Leste have a job is for business, but also this country's long-term stability," the premier said, using the nation's official name.

Gusmao said Australia's rapid response was "a sign that our neighbours have great faith in our young democracy, and that the protection of our democracy is central in establishing a climate of peace and stability."

"Our nation is a proud nation," he said. "A bullet can wound the president but can never penetrate the values of democracy."

Rudd also met with acting president Fernando de Araujo and head of the opposition Fretilin party Mari Alkatiri, and toured the base of the Australian-led International Stabilisation Forces, before departing.

Araujo thanked Rudd for sending troops and making the visit, and also for providing medical care "to save our president".

He said he had just received an update on the condition of Ramos-Horta, who is recuperating in hospital in the northern Australian city of Darwin where he was airlifted after the attack.

The president had been in an induced coma after three rounds of surgery, but Araujo said he had now spoken a few words.

"This is a very encouraging sign... Hopefully, in one or two months he can return and resume his role as president of the republic," he told a press briefing.

He also thanked East Timorese youths for remaining calm in the aftermath of the attacks, amid fears the death of Reinado would stoke unrest.

The Australian prime minister had travelled to Dili as an opposition frontbencher after the deadly gang violence that wracked the city in 2006.

That unrest led to the original deployment of peacekeepers as well as UN police who remain on patrol here. East Timor gained its independence from Indonesia in 2002 following a UN-sponsored referendum three years earlier.

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