A platoon of New Zealand Army troops has left New Zealand to try to bring calm to the troubled streets of East Timor.

Forty-two troops flew out of Christchurch on an RNZAF Hercules C130 about 12.30pm today bound for Townsville, Queensland, to await final deployment to East Timor.

The soldiers have been on stand-by to go for more than a week, but were only given notice of the trip last night.

There was an emotional farewell for some of the troops as they had only received the call to duty at 9.30am today. Around 30 family members were at the airport.

The deployment came in response to a deteriorating security situation there which has seen chaos and murders on the streets of the capital, Dili.

Details were emerging this morning of a massacre in which the United Nations said East Timor soldiers opened fire on unarmed police, killing nine officers and wounding 27 other people.

The New Zealand troops will be away for no more than a month because they are not been fully innoculated against tropical diseases.

Platoon leader Lieutenant John Lawrey said the troops' job would be to provide security as called upon by the Australian-led intervention force.

Private Katiama Niwha's excitement at travelling to East Timor was tempered by the sadness of having to leave behind his partner Kaycee Tipene-Thomas and five-month-old son Tekohu.

"I don't know what to expect, but I'm ready to go. This is why I joined the army," Private Niwha said.

Ms Tipene-Thomas was philosophical about her partner having to go. "At the end of the day, it's his job. I knew what I was getting myself into," she said.

Communication between East Timor and New Zealand was expected to be limited.

"If I don't hear from him, I'll know he's all right," Ms Tipene-Thomas said.

Prime Minister Helen Clark announced early today that New Zealand would join the peacekeeping effort in East Timor (Timor Leste). The National Party backed the deployment.

Helen Clark said New Zealand's force would work with the Australian military and both countries were likely to operate under the same rules of engagement.

That means New Zealand troops could be under a "shoot to kill" policy. Helen Clark expected more details on the nature of New Zealand's role within 24hours.

Taking control

President Xanana Gusmao declared that he was taking exclusive control of East Timor's security forces from the Government of Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri.

Earlier last night Australian Prime Minister John Howard said his country's 1300 troops would be deployed faster to cope with the crisis.

Up to 120 New Zealand troops could be deployed within the next few days, Helen Clark said this morning. The New Zealand contingent heading to Darwin today is 42-strong.

"The United Nations Security Council has made its concern clear and expressed its full understanding of the request made by the Timor Leste Government for assistance to Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, and Portugal," Helen Clark said.

"I have spoken late Thursday evening with the Secretary-General of the United Nations, who has expressed his thanks to each of the four countries approached by Timor Leste for their willingness to assist.

"Given the distance of New Zealand from Timor, it is appropriate to position New Zealand airlift capacity in Darwin now, both to assist with evacuation if required and with troop transport as required.

"The Government has also authorised the positioning of a platoon in Darwin today, and has authorised the mobilisation of a company which is able to be positioned in Darwin in the coming days."

She said New Zealand and Australian officials were continuing to talk with East Timor representatives about the rules of engagement.

Defence Force spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Mike Shatford said earlier a the C130 Hercules from Christchurch to Darwin would have 42 soldiers on board, the majority of them from Burnham Camp.

A second flight, likely to be a Boeing 757, would leave later today.

In Dili, about 600 rebel soldiers, sacked for desertion, are reported to have clashed with Army troops, and gangs of youths armed with machetes have been roaming the streets.

Australia has sent 130 commandos to secure the airport and has 1300 troops standing by. As well, the frigate Adelaide is in Dili harbour.


Earlier yesterday the commandos helped to evacuate Australian Embassy staff and friends from the deadly gun battles on the streets.

Amid tearful hugs and the sound of gunfire echoing from surrounding hills, about 50 people were escorted into the ramshackle Nicolau Lobato International Airport in a convoy of four-wheel-drives with Australian Defence Co-operation emblazoned on their sides.

Melbourne man Jethroe Bangay, who was staying behind after seeing off his mother Bridget, said the fierce gun battles had been too close to home.

"We saw several from pretty close range," he said, as families boarded an Air Force C-130 Hercules transport.

At least six people have so far died in the unrest and a tense stand-off has developed between ethnic factions in East Timor's Army.

A South Korean man was wounded in yesterday's firefights.

Portugal, the former colonial power in East Timor, has said it will send 120 military police and Malaysia is preparing to send a team of police officers.

New Zealand's ambassador in Dili, Ruth Nuttall, reported gunfire could be heard from the embassy, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman said.

Embassy staff spent yesterday ringing New Zealanders in East Timor, passing on Foreign Affairs advice that people should leave Timor.

The spokeswoman said some opted to leave yesterday, but around 40 remained.

Volunteer Service Abroad acting chief executive Carolyn Mark said the organisation's five volunteers in Dili were evacuated to Darwin yesterday.

"It's not because they feel in any serious danger, but as a precautionary measure," Ms Mark said.

"We've been talking to them constantly and also been dealing with embassy staff.

"We fully expect that they will be able to return to Dili to resume their assignments, which is what they want to do."

Meanwhile, New Zealander Warwick Inder, who heads the Red Cross delegation to East Timor, is struggling to deal with people who have moved to Dili to escape violence.

He estimated that between 10,000 and 15,000 people had taken up temporary residence in the capital.

"Conditions in some camps are becoming worse due to overcrowding and heavy rain, causing disease outbreaks to become a growing concern."

The United Nations mission to East Timor has set up a camp near its headquarters for 1000 people.

It has also offered support to an East Timorese Government effort to set up a meeting with representatives of the rebels.

- additional reporting: Agencies, NEWSTALK ZB