Australia told: `It could be a long, hard haul'

AUSTRALIA WILL witness an event today that has not been seen for a generation: the departure of 2,000 men and women on a hazardous military operation from which some may not return.

With the nation braced for possible casualties, from what is Australia's biggest military deployment since the Vietnam War, the Prime Minister, John Howard, warned that the Australian-led peace-keeping force in East Timor could face a long and dangerous haul.

"We all hope that this mission can be completed smoothly and quickly, but we must, however, prepare for the possibility that it could be long and protracted," he said in a pre-recorded address to the nation broadcast on televison last night. "Although the goal of the force is the restoration of peace and stability, the conditions that they encounter could be violent. Any operation of this kind is dangerous. There is the risk of casualties."

Mr Howard, often criticised for his wooden delivery and failure to show emotion, appeared close to tears as he said that all Australians sought to share the anxieties felt by the families of the troops. "They go with our goodwill and total support," he said. "We wish them godspeed."

With Australia's initial troop commitment likely to rise to 4,500 in the coming weeks, opinion polls and radio phone-ins suggest that nearly all Australians support the country's leading role in the International Force for East Timor (Interfet). However, that consensus could start to crumble if troops are killed. Only one Australian soldier has died in active service since the Vietnam War, so the impact of casualties would be deeply felt.

Australian newspapers expressed their support for Australia's involvement in East Timor yesterday, but said the country would have to bear most of the expense for the province's long-term security and rehabilitation.

The Prime Minister flew to Townsville in northern Queensland last night, where some of the troops who will form the Australian contingent of the multinational peace-keeping force are stationed.

Mr Howard, who was flying on to the northern city of Darwin to speak to troops, said in his televised address that the government's decision to commit Australian forces to the peace-keeping team had not been taken lightly.

Interfet would work under robust rules of engagement, he said. "The rules under which they will operate will allow them to take all necessary steps not only to protect themselves but also to achieve the objectives of their mission."

Mr Howard also referred to the increasingly angry anti-Australia demonstrations that have taken place in Indonesia in recent days, saying: "Australia's quarrel is not with the Indonesian people. Indonesia is our nearest neighbour. We want friendly relations with the people of that country."

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