Australian Commonwealth Coat of Arms


11 February 2008

Interview on ABC Lateline

Subject: East Timor

TONY JONES: Well, Australia's Foreign Affairs Minister, as I have just said, Stephen Smith, came into our Canberra studio just a short time ago to discuss the assassination attempts.

Stephen Smith, thanks for joining us.

STEPHEN SMITH: Pleasure Tony.

TONY JONES: It now appears that President Ramos Horta was injured more severely than the initial reports at least had it. What can you tell us of his condition now that he arrived in Australia?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, he's arrived in Darwin. He's now at Darwin Royal Hospital. He received two bullet wounds. He was operated on in Dili and then transported by Medivac to Darwin. His condition is very serious but stable and a lot of care and attention was required before making the decision to transport him to Darwin. But his condition there is described by the medical team as very serious but stable.

TONY JONES: Is it your understanding that he is now effectively out of danger? And will he undergo further surgery?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I think the phrase, very serious but stable means that there's a bit of water to go under the bridge yet. I think the medical advice is that he obviously needs to be very very closely monitored over the coming days and we just hope for the best. It's been a very bad day. It was something that we were deeply moved by because it came as a bolt out of the blue and both the President and the Prime Minister are very highly regarded in Australia and so it was a very significant development. And we just now, Tony, just wish the best for him personally. As of course we wish the best for the people of East Timor and we hope that we continue to have stability and peace in East Timor.

TONY JONES: Is he conscious? Has he been conscious and has he been able to talk and describe what happened to him?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well I don't know whether he's conscious. My understanding is that for the purposes of the transportation from Dili to Darwin, he was medically induced into a coma. And that was done for the obvious reason of easing the transportation. Whether he is still in that induced coma or not, I'm unaware. What we do know, as I've put it, he is in a very serious condition, stable. We hope for the best, but we do need to monitor the situation very carefully and be absolutely confident that he's in very good hands at Royal Darwin.

TONY JONES: We presume you've had detailed briefings from the Australian military on the ground. Let's start if we can, because reports have so sketchy on what actually happened in this shooting. Let's start at the President's compound. How did Jose Ramos Horta end up in the line of fire?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, can I just make this point first Tony, we're not going to rush to judgment. We're still awaiting ourselves for detailed factual advice and analysis. So there are a range of things that remain very sketchy. So the first point I think to make is that we're not going to rush to judgment. We will wait until the full facts and analysis to come through. But what we are aware of, as we were advised, is that early in the morning there was an exchange of gunfire at or near the President's home. There were at least one casualty and it's confirmed that that is Reinado, the rogue as he's been described. In the course of the exchange of fire the President received the two bullet wounds which required the operation and subsequent transfer that we've spoken about earlier.

TONY JONES: Was he effectively ambushed when he was out on his walk as some have said, or alternatively another theory that he actually walked up and attempted to negotiate with these rebels when they arrived at the compound as some would expect him to do, in fact?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, again Tony we're not aware of those facts and we expect or hope at least, that that'll become clear in the coming days. What we do know is so far as Reinado was concerned, President Ramos Horta had made it clear that his view was that he wanted to seek to negotiate an arrangement with him. Some time ago, from memory, nine or 10 months ago, the East Timorese Government made it clear to the international stabilisation force that they would prefer to seek to negotiate a solution with Reinado and as a consequence the international stabilisation force ceased effectively looking for Reinado. You might, of course, recall that last week there was a chance meeting where an international stabilisation force patrol effectively ran into him and after some warning shots were fired, withdrew. So we do know for some time that the President has been minded to seek to affect a negotiated outcome with Reinado. Now whether it was a chance meeting, whether it was an ambush, whether it was an arranged meeting that went awry, we hope will become clearer in the days and potentially weeks ahead.

TONY JONES: Do you know, for example, whether it was Reinado who shot the President?

STEPHEN SMITH: No, we don't. It took some time before the Australian Federal Police were able to confirm that Reinado had actually been killed. We received that advice after a number of hours. That itself was in some doubt for a considerable period of time and again just underlines some of the facts, if not a lot of the facts, are sketchy and it's important that we neither rush to a judgment about the facts or rush to an analysis. What we do know is this has been a serious and deleterious day and the Australian Government has responded by essentially saying, we stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the duly elected government of East Timor. And we have reflected that by the additional troop and police commitments that we've made and also the Prime Minister indicating that towards the end of the week he'll make a trip himself to East Timor.

TONY JONES: Will you be going with him by the way?

STEPHEN SMITH: No, but I am proposing tomorrow to travel to Darwin. My counterpart Zacharias De Costa, the Timorese Foreign Minister, has travelled to Darwin to be with the President. And I'm proposing tomorrow to be with Darwin to speak with Zacharias De Costa to relay to him personally Foreign Minister to Foreign Minister, the very strong view that the Australian Government gives all its support to the duly elected government of East Timor. At the East Timor Government's request we have responded very, very quickly with the additional troop and police complement. And we want to make the point that we regard it as very important that Australia supports East Timor in this very, very difficult time. And we wanted to effectively send a show of strength or a show of support or a show of force that security and stability in East Timor is very important to Australia, just as respecting parliamentary democracy in the duly-elected government is also very important.

TONY JONES: A few more details before we go back in that direction, and we still don't know the answer to. Have the Australian Federal Police confirmed for themselves, have they sighted the body? Have they confirmed for themselves as witnesses that it is Reinado who's dead?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we didn't proceed to come to the conclusion that Reinado was dead until we received advice from the Australian Federal Police that one of their officers had personally sighted the body and confirmed that it was Reinado and that he was dead. That was the basis on which we moved from reports that were circulating that he was dead to concluding that that was the state.

TONY JONES: OK, the second attack on Xanana Gusmao, what can you tell us about that? It appears to have been an attack on his vehicle. I assume that he was in the vehicle. Was he escaping from his house knowing what had happened at the President's compound?

STEPHEN SMITH: No, as we understand it and again, we may well have to wait days before a final concluded view, but he was travelling in convoy under his personal protection from his home to his office, to his place to work. The convoy was ambushed. Shots were fired, and fortunately he was able to make his escape and very quickly was placed under the protection of the international stabilisation force. In particular, Australian Defence Forces, and very quickly thereafter his wife was taken from the residence and also put under the protection of the international stabilisation force. So the attack on the Prime Minister, on Prime Minister Gusmao, came as we understand it about an hour and a quarter, maybe an hour and a half, after the exchange of fires which wounded the President. And he was in a convoy under his personal protection from home to work.

TONY JONES: Is there any question in your mind this was, in fact, a dual assassination attempt? An attempt to take out the entire leadership of the country or the two key leaders of East Timor?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, that's the basis on which we're proceeding that this wasn't a coincidence that this was a deliberative assassination attempt to as you've described it. To take out the Prime Minister and the President, the two key figures in the dually-elected East Timorese Government. And that's why the events of the day are effectively so shocking, that this could occur, and that's if you like, the main reason apart from the natural warmth and friendship that we feel not just to the President and the Prime Minister but to the people of East Timor. That's the main reason why we have responded with what we regard as an effective and appropriate show of force and strength. That this to us looks like a deliberative attempt to assassinate the two key East Timorese government, political figures.

TONY JONES: Is it your worst fear that had either of those assassination attempts succeeded it could have triggered a civil war or some escalating civil conflict?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we know that it's very important that we have ongoing stability and security in East Timor. That's one of the reasons why we very strongly are on the view that the international stabilisation force should remain. And when I was recently in the United States both in New York and in Washington I made the point to United Nations officials and to administration officials that we very strongly were of the view that the United Nations mandate which expires towards the end of this month should be renewed. Because an ongoing presence of international stabilisation, an ongoing presence of United Nations through its own police force was very important to seeking to give an environment of stability, of peace and security to enable East Timor to grow as a nation in the capacity building areas that are so important. Providing employment, providing education and training, all the attachments to parliamentary democracy. To enable East Timor to build and grow as a nation state. You can't do that in the absence of peace and stability and security. So we very strongly, even before this terrible event today, were of the view that a continued presence by the international stabilisation force and the United Nations was imperative. And we are now even much more strongly adhering to that view, and I don't think now that that view would in any way be contested given the terrible events of today.

TONY JONES: You expect the United Nations now to agree and to keep the stabilisation force in place and keep supporting it?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I think the only thing at issue is whether the UN mandate was extended for a six month period or a 12 month period. I think it's clear that the sensible thing to do is to extend that mandate for a 12 month period because we now need a period of settling down. We now need to ensure that in the next few days in which we don't have an outbreak of unrest or disorder, but we have a continuing calm despite the very terrible events.

TONY JONES: What is the situation now regarding the supporters of Reinado, he's a charismatic leader, now that he's dead is the assumption that they may fade away or be easier to deal with. Or is the assumption now he's dead they may respond with some form of revenge?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, again that's to be seen in the next few days and possibly longer. But certainly one of the reasons that we have committed the additional complement of troops and police is it may well be necessary for that additional complement to be used to effectively round up Reinado's supporters. Now we would hope that given that the rogue ring leader is now dead that there might be some peaceful and amicable way of his supporters returning to the fold or at least handing in their arms.

TONY JONES: Do you know how many of them there are, if there is to be such an attempt to round them up?

STERPHEN SMITH: On the advice that I have, and I'm happy to stand corrected, but the advice that I have and the understandings that I've got in the course of the day, we're talking here in terms of 20, 25 core key supporters. There are potentially a wider number of the so called participants, the former army personnel, but in terms of a key core group, 20 is about the number. And when we received early reports of a group of 10 involved in the exchange of fire at or near the President's house and then a group of 10 ambushing the Prime Minister's convoy, people came quickly to the possible conclusion that we were dealing here with Reinado, and that appears to be the outcome of the day's events.

TONY JONES: A final question, you mentioned earlier that there had been as we know and reported on it last week an exchange of fire or at least Australian troops were fired on. In fact, they did return fire on that occasion. Will there be a change now to the rules of engagement, because these rebels clearly are extremely dangerous?

STEPHEN SMITH: Reinado's men fired warning shots and they were described as warning shots, in the direction or vicinity of the patrol. The patrol withdrew. That was their judgment, and it was a sensible judgment, consistent with the request of the East Timorese Government about nine months ago that they didn't want Reinado pursued because they were seeking to effect a managed or a negotiated outcome.

TONY JONES: I take your point. What I'm wondering is now they have actually made an assassination attempt on the two key leaders in the country, are they to be regarded differently? And will there be a difference to the Australian rules of engagement?

STEPHEN SMITH: I think the very strong view of the East Timorese Government is that given what's occurred, as I've put it, these people now need to be rounded up. And the sensible thing for them to do would be to effectively hand in their weapons rather than run the risk of them being pursued by the international stabilisation force or the additional complement of troops or police that we are providing. A decision made today, and whilst, of course, it's an operational matter we expect they will commence to arrive in the course of tomorrow.

TONY JONES: Stephen Smith we are out of time, we thank you very much for coming in, filling in an awful lot of detail on what has been a very sketchy day of information. A very bad day for East Timor and for the region, thank you very much.

STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks Tony, thank you.


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