Retired general tours cyclone-devastated region of Australia

The retired general who will oversee relief and reconstruction efforts in cyclone-shattered northern Australia toured the region Friday and said he could not set a time limit on how long it would take to rebuild devastated towns.

"Ladies and gentlemen, I'm here with my sleeves rolled up and my waterproof boots on," charismatic retired Gen. Peter Cosgrove said in Innisfail, ground zero of the havoc wrought Monday morning by category five Cyclone Larry. "It's time to get to work."

After walking around Innisfail in teeming tropical rain and shaking hands with residents gathered around a free barbecue, Cosgrove pledged to live in the region until his work was done, but said he could not say how long that would take.

"This place has been smashed, this has been a widespread and terrible natural disaster," he said.

Cosgrove, who retired last year as chief of Australia's defense forces, is best known for leading a force of international troops into East Timor in 1999 to quell a bloody rampage by pro-Jakarta militias.

"I think it's important not to set artificial timetables," he said when asked how long reconstruction would last. "Just as when we went into Timor, we didn't know how long it was going to take."

Federal Treasurer Peter Costello said Friday that a package of grants and loans to help farmers and small businesses recover likely would cost around 100 million Australian dollars (US$70 million; Ђ 60 million), reports the AP.

I.L.