Fri, Aug 25, 2006 - Page 5 News List

Australia to expand army: Howard

AP , CANBERRA

Australia will boost its army by 2,600 troops to deal with rising security threats in its region and contribute to military missions like those in Iraq and Afghanistan, the prime minister said yesterday.

Citing recent chaos in East Timor and the Solomon Islands, where Australia has sent troops to help restore peace, Prime Minister John Howard said Australia faced "ongoing and increasing instances of destabilized and failing states in our own region."

Such problems would continue in the next two decades, and Australia -- as the largest and wealthiest country in its neighborhood -- would be expected to help solve them, Howard told a news conference. He mentioned Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu as potential new trouble spots.

"It is quite obvious that we do need a larger army," Howard said.

He said Australia would continue to contribute to military actions like those in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Australia -- a staunch supporter of the US-led war on terror -- has around 4,000 troops deployed overseas, including around 500 in Afghanistan and more than 1,300 troops in and around Iraq.

"This country does continue to have responsibilities broader than our own immediate region and quite properly as part of a coalition fighting terrorism around the world, we cannot fully anticipate where extra challenges in that area might come," he said.

The new troops would be the largest expansion in years of Australia's armed forces, which currently number some 51,000 in the army, navy and air force.

The new troops would add two battalions to Australia's army, giving it a total of eight.

He said the government aimed to have the first battalion of new troops ready to be deployed overseas by 2010.

The announcement was likely to be cautiously received in Southeast Asia, where Howard has stirred anger in the past by saying he was prepared to use pre-emptive force to protect Australia from terrorist attacks.

Indonesia and Malaysia have accused Howard of being a proxy of Washington after US President George W. Bush referred to Canberra as a "sheriff" in the region during a visit in 2003.

Ross Babbage, chairman of the strategic think tank Kokoda Foundation, said the focus of Australia's buildup was the South Pacific rather than Asia, and that this would help to cool suspicions. He said Australian planners are concerned that the military will soon need to intervene in Papua New Guinea.

Opposition leader Kim Beazley has described the army as "hopelessly over-stretched."

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