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East Timor Barred from Autralia's Seasonal Workers Program

  • Phil Mercer

Australia has rejected pleas from its impoverished northern neighbor East Timor to be included in a new seasonal worker program. East Timor's Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao raised the matter during meetings in Australia, which also covered regional security. From Sydney, Phil Mercer reports.

Six years after independence, East Timor remains grindingly poor. Unemployment stands at 40 percent. Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao had hoped that young East Timorese would be included in a new plan to allow 2,500 foreign workers from the South Pacific into Australia to take temporary jobs.

But Australia's Prime Minister Kevin Rudd told Mr. Gusmao that his country will have to wait at least another year before taking part in the program.

Mr. Rudd said government officials will report back by the end of the year on the feasibility of East Timor joining the seasonal workers program.

In the meantime, Mr. Rudd says Australia will help train public sector workers in East Timor.

"In particular what we are looking at is the need in the Timor-Leste public sector and its public service for an intensified training program - grassroots, middle level and senior level - in order to make sure that East Timor is properly equipped to address its challenges for development," he said.

Mr. Rudd also reaffirmed Australia's military commitment to East Timor, promising that Canberra will be a "secure, long-term and reliable partner." On Tuesday, Mr. Gusmao also met with Australian defense officials.

Australia has about 750 troops and 50 police in East Timor. They are part of an international contingent of 2,500 peacekeepers who are helping to maintain law and order in the country.

In 2006, factional disputes within East Timor's military led to a surge in violence that killed 37 people and forced 150,000 from their homes.

In February this year, renegade members of the security forces tried to assassinate East Timor's President Jose Ramos Horta, who was critically wounded, and Mr. Gusmao, who escaped unharmed.

East Timor voted to secede from Indonesian rule in 1999, provoking a wave of violence that led to thousands of U.N.-backed peacekeepers to be sent to the country. The tiny nation gained full independence in May 2002.

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