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Wednesday, October 6, 1999 Published at 16:22 GMT 17:22 UK

Howard under fire over Timor

Australian troops help an injured man in Dili

A bitter political row has erupted in Australia between Prime Minister John Howard and his predecessor Paul Keating over the current government's policy in East Timor.

The dispute brings to a head weeks of opposition criticism of the handling of Canberra's assertive new foreign policy stance.

Mr Keating said in a radio interview that East Timor was Australia's "worst foreign policy disaster since the Vietnam War" and accused Howard of using the issue for domestic political advantage.

"He wanted to be the independence-bringer to East Timor. All he has brought them is tears and grief," Mr Keating said.

"What John Howard tried to do was to placate the Timor lobby in Australia, placate the Catholic Church, come at the Labor Party from the left and try and slip the card out under the pack in Indonesia - and the pack fell in," he continued.

Leaked records

Mr Keating said leaked diplomatic memoranda showed that, at international negotiations on the issue, the government had consistently argued against sending peacekeepers to East Timor.

He also accused Mr Howard of writing to the Indonesian government earlier this year advocating autonomy rather than independence for the troubled territory.

But Mr Howard defended his handling of the crisis, saying that he was motivated simply by a desire to keep the public informed.

He said Mr Keating's comments deserved a formal rebuke and described the remarks as "recklessly indifferent to the national interest" .

Opposition Labor Party leader Kim Beazley distanced himself from his colleague Keating's remarks but was also critical of Howard's behaviour.

"John Howard has spent much time on talk-back radio and in the media generally, fishing for a poll-driven formula on this matter, when what he should be doing is locking in continuing international support for an ongoing international commitment to East Timor," he said.

But he was careful to stress that, in his view, most Australians still backed the campaign.

"There is no question about the support of the Australian people for this exercise.

It doesn't need to be mobilized, it's already there," he said.

Speaking at the Labor Party's annual conference in Sydney, Shadow Foreign Minister Laurie Brereton said the campaign should spark a great deal of soul-searching in Australia.

"The fact is," Brereton told the conference, "historically we could have done a lot better and we should have done a lot better." The view has been echoed by many in Australia since the violence in East Timor began - particularly remembering that Canberra was the only foreign government to recognize Indonesia' s annexation of East Timor in the mid-1970s.

Rising costs

Mr Howard did get support on one aspect of the issue - the opposition voted with the government in favour of increasing defence spending, with Mr Beazley saying it was necessary to keep an open mind on how long Australian troops would be deployed in East Timor.

The prime minister warned parliament that the cost of the exercise could far outstrip initial estimates of 500m Australian dollars.

Other reports suggested that compulsory military service may have to be reintroduced for the first time since conscription during the Vietnam War.

Source: BBC Monitoring Caversham 6 Oct 99

BBC Monitoring (, based in Caversham in southern England, selects and translates information from radio, television, press, news agencies and the Internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages.

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