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Troop Visit Highlights Cohen's Southeast Asia Visit

By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Sept. 27, 1999 – Defense Secretary William S. Cohen will meet with U.S. troops in Darwin, Australia, Sept. 29 during a nine-day visit to Australia and Southeast Asia.

Some 250 U.S. service members are in Darwin preparing to deploy to East Timor, an island province of Indonesia that voted for independence and is now struggling against anti-independence factions. A handful of Americans are already in Dili, the capital of East Timor.

En route to Cairns, Australia, Cohen will meet Sept. 27 in Hawaii with Adm. Dennis Blair, commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Command. Blair briefed reporters at the Pentagon Sept. 24 on the situation in East Timor. He said the operation is going well under the leadership of Australia.

"[The Australians] moved in very quickly after the United Nations resolution" to turn over control of East Timor to the democratically elected government, Blair said. "The day before they moved in, there was an agreement with the local Indonesian armed forces, the TNI, as to how that turnover would be conducted," he said. "Since then the TNI on scene has been carrying out their part of the agreement."

Besides Australia and the United States, nations participating in the East Timor operation include New Zealand, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Thailand and others. Blair said additional U.S. forces could be sent in as the operation expands.

Blair told reporters that the flow of U.S. personnel to the operation "so far has been about right" and that he was pleased with the progress of the operation. He said he doesn't anticipate sending U.S. ground combat forces to East Timor. Participating U.S. personnel, he noted, are covered by an Australian force protection umbrella.

Blair said U.S. troops fills a variety of support roles and, if Australia requests them, the United States would deploy more to northern Australia and East Timor as the mission expands.

In the meantime, U.S. personnel are already working on humanitarian relief efforts to the thousands of East Timorese driven from their homes. U.S. forces are setting up a civil and military operations center in Darwin to build a closer working relationship between the international peacekeeping force and the relief organizations, Blair said. The center places military civil affairs specialists with nongovernmental relief organizations.

A senior DoD official said the Indonesian forces have restored some order in the violence-rocked the East Timorese capital of Dili. He said ending the violence and bringing full security to the region, however, will take time.

Cohen will meet with senior Australian defense officials and with defense and political leaders at each of his other scheduled stops in Jakarta, Indonesia; Bangkok, Thailand; Singapore; and Manila.

In Singapore, Cohen will visit Changi Port, a naval facility Singapore has expanded to accommodate large U.S. naval vessels. The official said Singapore strongly supports long-term U.S. security interests in Southeast Asia.

This will be his third trip to Southeast Asia in the past two years. Since Cohen last visited the region in 1998, the Philippines ratified a new visiting forces agreement that re- introduces U.S. military training activities there. The spokesman said Cohen will meet with his Philippine counterparts to discuss the next steps in renewed security cooperation.

Cohen's return to Asia follows a hiatus caused by DoD concentration in Eastern Europe and Southwest Asia, the official said. He said the secretary sees the trip as important to communicating how strong U.S. interests and concerns are in maintaining peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region.

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