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Downer sounds warning on sending armed troops

12 January 2005

Sending armed Australian troops to Aceh to protect the relief effort would lead to a "significant confrontation" between the Australian and Indonesian governments, the Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, said yesterday.

Mr Downer said he had been given an undertaking by the Indonesian Army that it would do everything it could to provide protection for the Australian relief effort in Aceh.

"The irony of the situation is if we were to arm our troops I think that would make them more of a target than leaving them unarmed," Mr Downer said. "In the hotbed atmosphere of Aceh, having armed troops I think has the potential to be provocative, and the fact is the Indonesians are going to be very, very uncomfortable with the idea of armed troops."

Concerns have been raised by Labor over the security of troops and aid workers in Aceh after reports of skirmishes between the Indonesian military and separatists, as well as reports that Muslim extremist groups were moving into the area.

Labor's foreign affairs spokesman, Kevin Rudd, is travelling to Indonesia next week and hopes to visit Aceh. One of the things he would look at, he said, was how effective security arrangements were for the Australians.

Mr Downer said it was unlikely the Free Aceh Movement would attack aid workers. "We think it is also pretty unlikely that Islamic extremists, some of whom may have moved into the area with a view to providing assistance ... will turn on other people providing assistance."

Mr Downer's views were backed up by Professor Harold Crouch, of the Australian National University. Given Indonesia's history it would never allow armed foreign troops on its territory, he said.

Cynthia Banham

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