Australia to reduce forces in East Timor

Howard mentioned the planned troop reduction in separate closed-door meetings with his newly installed Timorese counterpart, Jose Ramos-Horta, and President Xanana Gusmao, officials said.

He also met with U.N. officials during his daylong visit - the first by a foreign leader since last week's installation of Ramos-Horta's government. Security was tight in the seaside capital, Dili, where Howard's convoy passed along roads dotted with gutted houses and other buildings.

Howard capped his whirlwind trip by thanking hundreds of Australian troops at a dusty encampment, where he had his picture taken with them and delivered a speech.

Australia led Malaysian, Portuguese and New Zealand peacekeepers into Dili in May at the East Timorese government's request when local security forces lost control of escalating violence, in which at least 30 people were killed and 150,000 fled their homes.

The Australian deployment is comprised of 2,600 military land, sea and air personnel, including 1,900 ground troops in Dili, according to Australia's Defense Department.

Months of unrest in East Timor began after former Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri dismissed nearly half of the armed forces in March, splitting the military and police into factions and eroding law and order.

Gusmao said the arrival of a U.N. police force in August would help East Timor to "consolidate the security" situation, but that it was too soon to withdraw troops completely.

Gusmao presented Howard with a traditional golden headdress, and the two leaders exchanged smiles and a warm embrace. Howard was also greeted by a group of East Timorese student athletes, and hugged each of them.

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