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Australian move on Afghan troop hike soon

Australian Defence Minister Brendan Nelson said the addition of 200 troops into Kabul would bring the total contingent to over 500.

india Updated: Feb 20, 2006 16:44 IST

Australia will soon announce a near doubling of its troops in Afghanistan in order to partner with Dutch forces preparing to deploy in the volatile south of the country, Australia's defence minister said on Monday.

Minister Brendan Nelson said the addition of 200 troops into Afghanistan, half of them devoted to reconstruction efforts, would bring the total contingent to over 500, including 200 special forces in the country since mid-2005.

"The NATO preference is that they (the Dutch) partner with Australia," Nelson told Reuters in one of his first interviews since becoming defence minister.

"That is a matter that is before active and current consideration of our government. We are generally disposed to agreeing to that request."

He said an announcement was likely "very soon" and possibly this week. The cabinet, which must endorse the decision, is meeting on Tuesday in the capital, Canberra.

The Dutch will be joining NATO forces preparing to expand into southern Afghanistan this year, giving them management of all international peacekeeping and allowing the United States to withdraw some forces from the area, power base of the former ruling Taliban and the most dangerous region in the country.

The Dutch, who have been reluctant to take on risky military engagements since the Srebrenica massacre in 1995, have been keen to ensure that this new mission focuses on reconstruction and not the US-led war on terror.

Critics of Prime Minister John Howard, who has been called the deputy sheriff of Asia for his close ties to US President George W Bush, have asked why Australia needs to fight in Afghanistan or Iraq when there are threats closer to home.

A poll published on Monday showed 20 per cent of 1,000 voters felt going to war with Iraq was the worst thing Howard had done in his 10 years in office, the largest number among the choices.

Nelson, defence minister for just three weeks but speaking in an office already filled with family photographs and a large model of an F/A-18 fighter, defended the decision.

"Iraq and Afghanistan are no less important priorities than the effort made in East Timor, the Solomon Islands, the support of the PNG (Papua New Guinea) government," he said, referring to Asian hot spots where Australia has committed troops.

"The nature of terrorism is such that it's not something you wait to turn up on your beaches before you do something about it," said the former education minister and medical doctor.

Australia has about 1,300 defence personnel in and around Iraq, including 450 troops in a southern province who are guarding Japanese engineers. Australia has promised to keep its forces there as long as Japan maintains its presence.

Nelson said Australia's forces guarding the Japanese were likely to stay in Iraq, regardless of what the Japanese decide.

"Our disposition is deploy probably most of those troops to another task in Southern Iraq," he said.

Australia has gradually strengthened its security relationship with Indonesia and is currently negotiating a status of forces agreement with the Philippines, which is trying to root out Al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf insurgents in its far south islands.

The United States has already stationed some 200 advisers on one of the islands and holds regular military exercises in the area.

Nelson confirmed Australia also already had a military presence in the Philippines, but refused to elaborate.

"We do have a presence but I'm not prepared to confirm the extent," he said.

Australia's security relationship with Indonesia has improved dramatically since the two began cooperating on anti-terrorism efforts after the first Bali bombing killed 202 people, 88 of them Australians, in October 2002.

Canberra has poured $36.8 million into a Jakarta-based counter-terrorism training programme and is now conducting joint exercises with Indonesia's Kopassus special forces somewhere in Australia for the first time since 1997, Nelson said.

First Published: Feb 20, 2006 15:32 IST