NZ troops held back to prepare for long stint in East Timor

By Mike Houlahan

The bulk of New Zealand's troops en route to troubled East Timor are being held in reserve, as the 1300 Australian soldiers in the country struggle to quell widespread fighting and looting.

The 42-strong platoon of New Zealand soldiers arrived in Dili on Saturday, and after landing, immediately moved to ensure the New Zealand embassy - which was attacked by an angry mob on Saturday afternoon - was secure.

A further company of 124 soldiers is in Australia awaiting deployment to East Timor.

Prime Minister Helen Clark has committed up to 200 soldiers to efforts to restore peace.

Defence spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Mike Shatford said the company was acclimatising in Townsville and would be flown to Darwin today.

The company was not expected to fly to East Timor today, and the timing of its deployment was still to be decided between New Zealand and Australian officials.

"It [the company] is undergoing acclimatisation training because we expect it to be in Timor for some time," said Colonel Shatford.

"The actual task it's going to complete in Timor is not finalised yet because there's a lot of consultation with the international community and the Timor Leste Government."

In the meantime, an Air Force 757 had flown to the Solomon Islands where it was to pick up Australian soldiers, who would be deployed to East Timor.

The plane would be bringing back to New Zealand some of the police and Defence Force personnel and equipment rushed to the Solomons after riots broke out in Honiara.

A Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade spokesman said things seemed to be a little calmer in Dili yesterday after Saturday's widespread rioting and looting. He said the embassy had come under threat only for a short period of time, "but that's not to understate the seriousness of what happened there".

Ambassador Ruth Nuttall and other staff were back at the embassy, having been evacuated to the Australian embassy for their protection.

About 36 New Zealanders normally resident in East Timor remained in the country, with few long-term residents having taken up offers of evacuation, the MFAT spokesman said.

Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand and Portugal have sent troops to East Timor, with 220 Malaysian soldiers arriving in the country yesterday.

In Dili yesterday, soldiers struggled to subdue gangs and factions split on racial and political lines who have sent thousands of their fellow East Timorese fleeing to refugee camps.

The United Nations has evacuated non-essential staff from East Timor but 100 personnel remain.

While some New Zealand aid agency staff, such as five workers from Volunteer Service Abroad, have left, New Zealanders with the Hibiscus Coast East Timor Appeal Trust (Heta), Child Fund, Christian World Service, Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand, World Vision and the Red Cross, remain.

On Saturday Helen Clark announced a $500,000 boost to the $4 million worth of humanitarian aid New Zealand gives to East Timor. The extra money, to be given via the Red Cross, was for shelter, water and medical care.

"The loss of law and order in Dili has serious consequences for all Timor Leste citizens. While our troops are helping to restore order, it's also important we act to address humanitarian needs."

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