Tue Sep 9, 2008 9:22am BST
CANBERRA (Reuters) - Australia's military was accused on Tuesday of opening the gates to an invasion force of cane toad pests when it led international peacekeepers into East Timor to end a pro-Indonesia militia slaughter there in 1999.
Australian soldiers arriving in Dili inadvertently brought with them a number of the toxic toads, which have overrun vast swathes of Australia's tropical north in the past 70 years, a senior aid worker in the fledgling nation said.
"So many toads in East Timor. We don't know how to get them away, how to kill them," Simplicio Barbosa of aid agency Care International told Australian radio.
Scientists introduced cane toads to Australia from Hawaii in 1935 in a failed bid to control sugar cane beetle. Native to Central America, the ugly warty amphibians can grow as big as dinner plates and weigh up to 2.6 kg (5.8 lb). Poison glands in their skin make them toxic to predators, including crocodiles.
The 3,000 toads originally released into the Australian wild have multiplied to more than 200 million today, covering close to a quarter of the country, including the World Heritage-listed Kakadu National Park.
Barbosa said cane toads had hitched a lift to East Timor hidden in trucks and equipment used by the Australian-led International Force for East Timor, which landed in September 1999 with the backing of the United Nations Security Council.
Australian Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon said on Tuesday he would investigate the accusations, but promised his military had "strict quarantine controls".
East Timor, which only gained full independence in 2002, has struggled to get back on its feet after the army fractured along regional lines in 2006, triggering violence that killed 37 people and drove 150,000 from their homes.
(Reporting by Rob Taylor; editing by Roger Crabb)