They call themselves 'rascals', a word which conjures up good-natured pranksters or naughty schoolboys. But in the pidgin English of Papua New Guinea the word, which is spelt 'raskol', denotes something much more sinister. Far from being loveable rogues, raskols are the armed thugs at the centre of PNG's crime epidemic. Notorious for robberies, rapes and armed hold-ups, they prey on locals and foreigners. They are a product of the slums which dot the hills and valleys around the capital, Port Moresby, routinely listed by the Economist Intelligence Unit as the world's most dangerous capital city. Expatriates live behind high walls and razor wire, more reminiscent of Johannesburg than the South Pacific. Newcomers are warned not to go out after dark, and to take care, even when walking around the centre of town in the middle of the day. The raskols, armed with machetes, pistols and M-16 assault rifles, can strike at any time. In one widely reported incident last year, a nurse was injured in a car crash, only to be dragged away, still bleeding, and gang-raped by raskols. A van full of flight attendants on their way to the airport was also held up and the women raped. Tackling the scourge of PNG's raskol gangs will be a key challenge faced by the 210 Australian police officers being deployed to the country as part of an emergency assistance package drawn up between Canberra and Port Moresby. Today, Australian police and officers from the Royal PNG Constabulary will mount their first joint patrols, on foot and by car, on the mean streets of Port Moresby. About 20 Australian police are already in the separatist island province of Bougainville, and over the next few months other officers will be deployed to the crime-ridden towns of Lae and Mount Hagen, in PNG's rugged interior. Armed with 9mm pistols, they will be subject to local rules of engagement - which means that if attacked, they will be able to shoot back. 'Firearms are a last resort public protection measure. If required, the officers are well trained in their use,' said Greg Keeley, the spokesman for the mission. Mr Keeley admitted that it would take some time for the Australians to become 'street savvy' in a profoundly alien environment. The officers have undergone a week of cultural awareness training and a crash course in pidgin English. 'Some of them have never been deployed overseas before, but others have served in the Solomons, Cyprus and East Timor. The old hands will be able to help the new guys,' Mr Keeley said. The Australians are in for the long haul - the 'enhanced co-operation package' is due to last until 2009 at least. The cost of the operation comes on top of the A$300 million ($1.8 billion) that Australia gives each year in aid to PNG. The deployment is part of a renewed commitment by Australia to shore up some of the failed or failing states in its Pacific backyard. It comes just over a year after Australia sent a 2,200-strong force of soldiers drawn from across the region to the Solomon Islands, a former British colony which had been crippled by nearly five years of ethnic strife and banditry. Without help, it is feared that countries like PNG and the Solomons could descend into anarchy, providing a base for gun runners, drug traffickers and terrorists. In addition to the 210 police officers, Australia is sending 65 public officials and civil servants. In an unprecedented move, they will fill positions in the Solicitor-General's office, the Customs, Immigration and Corrective Services departments, and key finance, transport and planning agencies. The aim is to bring about nothing less than a complete overhaul of PNG's administration, which has been dogged by accusations of corruption, nepotism and ineptitude. Australia's deployment to PNG is fraught with difficulties. It was only 29 years ago that Australia granted the former colony its independence, and the prospect of white police officers once more telling Papuans what to do has inevitably drawn charges of neo-colonialism. PNG has slid backwards on almost every socio-economic index since the Australian flag was lowered in 1975. Unemployment is sky-high and poverty acute. In the past few years there has been an explosion in HIV/Aids infections, with warnings that the country could be facing the sort of epidemic which has devastated countries in southern Africa. Added to this is the fact that the country of 5.2 million boasts 800 separate languages, with people owing allegiance to their tribe rather than to the nation. Westminster-style democracy has never taken root, and PNG has struggled to come to terms with the realities of the 20th century, let alone those of the 21st. PNG shares a border with the restive Indonesian province of Papua, formerly Irian Jaya, and Australia must be careful not to antagonise Jakarta. So far, the Australian deployment has excited little debate among Indonesia's political elite. 'I think if Australian police were lined up along the border with Papua, things would be different,' said Fikri Jufri, senior editor with Tempo news magazine in Jakarta. 'Also, the Australians are there at the invitation of PNG's government, so that helps too.' Jakarta is too pre-occupied with the separatist movement in Papua to be seriously worried about PNG, according to Greg Fealy, an Indonesia expert with the Australian National University in Canberra. 'The Australians are there to restore law and order and I think Indonesia will regard that as a good thing,' he said. 'Jakarta is highly suspicious of Australia's motives towards Papua, but I don't think that extends to PNG itself.' The Australian police who are already on the ground have been well received. Ordinary people in PNG are sick of the crime and corruption crippling their country. Even the raskols have given a cautious welcome to the Australians' arrival. 'We want them to come in because the PNG police and government aren't doing their job, they're not protecting anybody,' said Allan Omaro, the leader of a raskol gang based among the tin-roofed shanties of Kaugere, on the outskirts of Port Moresby. 'I am a criminal, but we steal to survive, not to hurt people,' said Mr Omaro, whose gang includes about 1,000 men and boys. 'We're very good people, it's just that the system is very bad.' One of the biggest dangers in the months ahead is that people's expectations may exceed the capabilities of the small Australian task force. 'We have to be careful that people realise there won't be results overnight,' Mr Keeley said. Over the next few months it will become clear whether Australia's bold move heralds a new era of peace and progress, or the start of another bloody chapter in PNG's troubled history.