East Timor Crisis: Peace-keeping Forces - Australian rapid reaction force is put on stand- by

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The Independent Online
AUSTRALIA, LIKELY to spearhead an international peace-keeping force in East Timor, has 2,500 troops on alert in Darwin, who could be deployed at 24 hours' notice.

The Australian Defence Minister, John Moore, last night spoke of the high state of readiness of the First Brigade, the rapid-reaction force stationed in Darwin, about 400 miles south of the East Timorese capital, Dili. Mr Moore estimated the force could total about 7,000 but needed full support from Indonesia's military.

Mr Moore expressed relief at the capitulation of the Indonesian President, B J Habibie. "It's a welcome development not just for East Timor but also for Indonesia. Australia stands ready to assist the UN in whatever way we're asked."

The Prime Minister, John Howard, has offered to give up to 4,500 troops to form the core of a peace-keeping force and to provide leadership. Darwin is certain to be the logistical hub of the military operation. Australian warships have been moved into position in international waters off East Timor.

On stand-by in Darwin are an Australian supply ship, HMAS Tobruk, and a high-speed catamaran, HMAS Jervis Bay, which could ferry hundreds of troops across the Timor Sea in eight to 10 hours.

Earlier yesterday, a senior Australian defence official, Lieutenant-Colonel David Tyler, said: "We're ready to go, there's no doubt about that, when the government calls on us." Mr Howard spent most of his time at the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum in Auckland this weekend lobbying hard for a UN-sponsored peace-keeping team. Yesterday he discussed with the American President, Bill Clinton, the role that the US military might play.