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Australia rushes to troubled East Timor

East Timor's call for help Wednesday opened a new mission for an already stretched military.

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Australian and other foreign troops were preparing to head for East Timor Wednesday after the former Portuguese colony issued an urgent appeal for help to quell weeks of unrest.

Intense fighting between government forces and renegade soldiers in the tiny island nation left two people dead and at least nine injured in the latest clashes. The government in Dili asked Australia and New Zealand to send soldiers, and for Malaysia and Portugal to send police.

Canberra will shoulder the lion's share of the deployment, and was planning to send a battalion of up to 1,300 troops as well as helicopters and armored vehicles. Three warships already on standby in northern Australian waters will also be deployed.

For Australia, this is the latest in a string of recent deployments to neighboring failing nations. While often viewed with suspicion by some of its Asian neighbors, small, troubled states in the South Pacific often welcome military intervention by the country they have come to regard as a mostly benign Big Brother. But Australia's willingness to play this role, as well as its increasing commitments to the war on terror, is straining its military.

"Things are very tight at the moment and they are certainly stretched," says Neil James, chief executive of the Australia Defence Association, a strategic think tank. "The nightmare scenario would be a serious law-and-order breakdown in Papua New Guinea. The Australian Army is just not big enough to even safely evacuate all the foreign expatriates there. And it's certainly not strong enough to put down any serious fighting."

A growing number of foreign commitments

The pressures on Australia's military - which includes some 52,000 active-duty personnel and 20,000 reserve forces - are growing. The country was among the first to commit troops to the US-led invasion of Iraq and now has about 1,400 military personnel there - miniscule by US or British standards, but politically significant for Canberra. Australia has also sent 550 troops to Afghanistan, including a special forces task force.

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