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East Timor's president cautiously backs refugee center plan, but warns against 'island prison'

SYDNEY (AP) — East Timor's president said Wednesday he supports in principle an Australian plan to turn his country into a regional center for processing asylum seekers but does not want his tiny, impoverished nation to become an "island prison."

Jose Ramos Horta said Wednesday that Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard had raised the proposal with him but that there were few details so far.

He told Australian Broadcasting Corp. television he supported the plan in principle, but only if East Timor's government agrees and if the facility were a temporary stop for people who would be resettled in other countries.

Ramos Horta, awarded the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize for helping end Indonesia's brutal rule of East Timor, serves in the largely ceremonial role of president, while the government is led by Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao.

"I would never turn my back on people who flee violence in Afghanistan, or whatever," Ramos Horta said. "But on a temporary basis, so that they can be sent to a third country where they can start life with dignity and with promise of a better future."

"I wouldn't want Timor-Leste to become an island prison for displaced persons fleeing violence," Ramos Horta said, using the country's official name.

East Timor, which has a population of just 1 million, has faced political turmoil and chronic unemployment since gaining independence in 2002 after nearly four centuries of foreign domination.

The half-island nation would need financial help to manage a center. It would also need assistance to feed, house and clothe asylum seekers and give them medical care and jobs in the community.

East Timor's Deputy Prime Minister Jose Luis Guterres said Tuesday he doubted his country had the capacity to run such a center.

Gillard on Tuesday proposed that East Timor would become a U.N.-approved processing hub for asylum seekers as a way to stem a recent influx of boat people trying to reach Australia from Afghanistan and other countries. The asylum seekers have become an issue in elections expected to be held within months.

On Wednesday, Gillard announced a $21 million (25 million Australian dollar) package to help Asian countries combat people-smuggling. Indonesia will get patrol boats and planes, while police in Malaysia, Thailand, Pakistan and Sri Lanka will get surveillance and other equipment.

The new policy brings Gillard's government closer into line with the conservative opposition by keeping asylum seekers out of the country while their applications are processed, though it retains humanitarian protections sought by the United Nations.

The opposition is campaigning on a return to an earlier policy that detained asylum seekers in camps in Pacific island countries without U.N. oversight. Many asylum seekers spent years languishing in the camps under the plan, which was heavily criticized by the U.N..

Conservative leader Tony Abbot dismissed Gillard's plan as an empty election promise with little international support and said the center would never be built.

But Gillard said she would be "relentlessly pursuing" the policy as a solution for Australia and other countries. She did not name any, but Indonesia has had to deal with asylum seekers passing through on their way to Australia. Thailand and Malaysia have faced asylum seekers from Myanmar.

"The idea is that for the whole region, not just for Australia, but for the whole region, it would be a better solution and a more durable solution to have a regional processing center where asylum-seeker claims are processed," Gillard said.

(This version CORRECTS quote in 5th paragraph, replacing 'plead' with 'flee'.)