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The Indonesian Threat To Australian Security

Australia fears an East Timor invasion, not from pro-independence militiamen, but from pesky insects, snails and weeds. John Howard reports.

East Timor hosts a plethora of disease-carrying or crop-gobbling insects and plants, and Australian officials want to keep them from hitching rides on aid and military planes returning to Australia, and hopefully to New Zealand.

The task is tough: planes fly daily in and out of Darwin, the main staging area for the UN-authorised mission to restore order in East Timor. Pests can also hide in the nooks of ships.

A big threat is Siam weed, a climbing plant-smotherer whose seeds have been found on the shoe soles and vehicle floors back from East Timor. With the wet season approaching in East Timor, the seeds will proliferate.

"It could realy ruin our national parks if it gets loose," said Ian Kilduff, director of quarantine for the Northern Territory, which includes coastal Darwin. His workers screen soldiers, aid workers and journalists returning from East Timor.

With penknives, buckets and brushes, quarantine staff pluck the dry, bristly seeds from shoes and wash footwear with a farm chemical.

They also spray insecticide daily in about 20 aircraft that fly back from missions in East Timor, hoping to wipe out any mosquitoes bearing malaria or dengue fever.

Another possible infiltrator is the papaya fly, which ravages all kinds of fruit. Fly traps have been set around Darwin's military airport to catch any stowaways.

Then there is the giant African snail, a pest prevalent throughout Southeast Asia. It munches fruit and vegetables and has a knack for clinging to the bottom of containers and pallets. So far, none have been found.

The quarantine staff in Darwin has been doubled to at least 30, and its coordinators regularly talk strategy with leaders of the peacekeeping force.

Military teams have been dispatched on international missions around the world and they are keenly aware of the need to keep pests away from home.

Thailand, the Philippines and other countries in the multinational forces also harbour many of the pests Australia and New Zealand will want to keep out.

The vigilance is tough and costs a lot. Recently it cost over $5.5 million Australian dollars for a large pest eradication program in Darwin alone.

ENDS


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