NZ troops on standby for E Timor (+ video)

By Greg Ansley

Foreign Minister Winston Peters says New Zealand is still consulting with other countries about whether more troops will be sent to East Timor.

A platoon of New Zealand troops is on standby to go to East after an attempt to assassinate the tiny nation's President and Prime Minister.

Australia has said it will send more troops and police following what appear to be co-ordinated attacks on Mr Ramos-Horta and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao.

Soldiers from the two countries stood guard over Government and other important buildings as Nobel Peace Prize-winning President Jose Ramos-Horta after was gunned down at his home in the capital, Dili.

Dr Ramos-Horta is now in a Darwin hospital in a serious but stable condition after being shot twice.

About 170 New Zealand Defence Force personnel and 25 police are on the ground in East Timor and 20 to 35 troops are on standby to join them.

A platoon of 20 to 35 troops is on standby to go to Dili.

Mr Peters said no decision had been taken yet about a further deployment.

"It has to be an international decision ... we are trying to ascertain alongside other countries - and Australia in particular - exactly what is going to be needed," Mr Peters said.

New Zealand troops were the first on the scene of the attack on Mr Ramos-Horta and there have been reports that foreign troops stood back and did not assist.

Mr Peters was sceptical saying different reports contradicted themselves.

"We intend to obtain the facts on this matter before we rush to judgment," Mr Peters said.

"When I hear they were first on the scene and yet refused to be there, that doesn't ring true to me."

Mr Peters said the attacks were a big setback for the fledgling country.

Dr Ramos-Horta was reported to have gunshot wounds in his abdomen and the right side of his chest.

Doctors said the 58-year-old was operated on in East Timor before being sedated, attached to a ventilator to help him breath and then airlifted to Darwin.

Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao escaped a similar attack and was reported to be safe and under heavy guard at his office.

Details of the attacks and the assassination teams were unclear last night, although some analysts believe they were the work of former army major Alfredo Reinado, who has led a group of armed rebels from the hills southwest of Dili since the bloody violence of May 2006.

Reinado was reported to have been killed in a 20-minute exchange of fire between rebels and soldiers guarding Dr Ramos-Horta's home.

But late yesterday, his death had not been confirmed.

Last night, officials in Dili said the city was "relatively calm", despite fears that violence could erupt between rival factions supporting the Government and Reinado and an associated group of about 600 army deserters known as the Petitioners.

The desertion of the Petitioners - soldiers from East Timor's western regions who claimed discrimination at the hands of the Army's eastern-dominated elite - caused the 2006 crisis.

Prime Minister Helen Clark and her Australian counterpart, Kevin Rudd, yesterday expressed shock as they prepared to send more troops to East Timor.

Troops from the two countries form the International Stabilisation Force, providing security as Dili rebuilds its defence and police forces.

"Jose Ramos-Horta is someone who has been known to me and others in New Zealand for many, many years," Helen Clark said. "We're deeply distressed at what has happened today. We're thankful he is alive."

Mr Rudd said he was deeply shocked and would visit Dili this week at the invitation of Mr Gusmao to demonstrate Australia's resolve and determination to stand with East Timor "in this time of deep challenge to its democratic process".

"What we had, apparently, are co-ordinated attacks aimed at assassinating the democratically elected leadership of East Timor, a close friend and partner of Australia."

Canberra now intends increasing its security forces in East Timor to about 1000 soldiers and police.

"An appropriate show of force is necessary," Mr Rudd said.

Australia now has about 780 troops in East Timor, including three rifle companies, Black Hawk and Kiowa helicopter crews and an artillery unit.

New Zealand has about 180 troops, including a rifle company, and two RNZAF Iroquois helicopters.

In Wellington, Defence Minister Phil Goff said a platoon of between 20 and 35 troops was on standby to fly to Dili.

Yesterday morning's attacks came just before dawn, when it appears two carloads of armed men opened fire on Dr Ramos-Horta's house.

They exchanged fire with Timorese troops, hitting the president and possibly one or more bodyguards.

Mr Goff said New Zealand's quick response force had been first to arrive and had secured the area around the house.

Reinado, charged with eight counts of murder relating to the 2006 crisis, escaped from jail and has been living openly in the Emera district southwest of Dili as the Government tried to negotiate a surrender agreement with him.

But as negotiations between the Government, Reinado and the Petitioners floundered, renewed violence erupted last August.

This month bombs have been detonated at the International Security Force's Camp Phoenix in Dili, in the city's Aitarak Laran area, and at a military building next to the Australian Embassy.

- With NZPA

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