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East Timor bids farewell to peacekeepers after 13 years

Agence France Presse - December 31, 2012

Gianrigo Marletta – The UN ends its peacekeeping mission in East Timor after 13 years in Asia's youngest nation following a bloody transition to independence as the country faces the challenge of tackling rampant poverty.

UN forces first entered the territory around the vote for independence from Indonesia in 1999 that gave way to political unrest and bloodshed, and around 1,500 peacekeepers were based there since.

The final batch of troops and logistics staff left in the morning as the mission prepared to take down its flag, departing from a country struggling with widespread malnutrition and maternal mortality rates among the world's worst.

Calm has been restored to the half-island nation of 1.1 million, and leaders said they were excited about their nation's new direction despite the many problems that lie ahead for the fragile democracy, officially called Timor-Leste.

"In the end we have to say goodbye to the UN with... high appreciation for what they have been doing in Timor-Leste," Deputy Prime Minister Fernando La Sama de Araujo told AFP at end-of-year festivities outside the government palace Sunday night.

He said East Timor would first focus on improving schools, hospitals and human resources in the public sector.

"But we're optimistic that in 10 years, coming together with many friends around the world including UN agencies for development, we can overcome these challenges," he said, as a jovial Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao entertained with hundreds of children.

The government plans to fuel development from the country's significant but depleting offshore oil and gas reserves that critics say benefit urban Timorese more than the regional poor.

The streets in the capital Dili, once dominated by UN four-wheel drives, have returned to a sleepy pace with rickety yellow taxis moseying along the streets for a $2 flat-rate fare.

"I usually drive my taxi until midnight. I'm not scared anymore because there hasn't been any conflict, like there was years ago," Angelo Ulan, 25, told AFP, welcoming the UN's end of mission. "Now we must unite to achieve prosperity and develop our country. I hope out leaders are united."

The UN has expressed faith in the national police force, which resumed responsibility for security in October, though observers show concern for the long term.

International Crisis Group analyst Cillian Nolan said the government's method of paying cash handouts to ensure peace and making stern but empty threats had undermined real long-term police reform.

Prime Minister Gusmao in November was filmed by a reporter warning: "Once the UN are gone... if you continue to hurl (stones) at one another, I will arrest you and not give you any food."

In a recent blog post, Nolan described these tactics as "trickery", saying "the trick will not last forever. And then what?".

"What we'll probably see after the UN withdrawal is an unorthodox approach to policing," Nolan told AFP. "We'll likely see some strong-arm tactics to ensure public order, and they'll be looking for non-policing ways to strengthen what is still a relatively weak police force."

The current UN mission was established in 2006, when a mass desertion among the armed forces prompted fighting between military factions and police, and street violence left at least 37 people dead and tens of thousands displaced. The final day of the mission has been mostly administrative.

Despite new challenges, East Timor will celebrate the new year with several notches on its belt from 2012: it marked a decade of formal independence and held largely-peaceful elections, voting in a new president and parliament.

"This is a historic day, because on the 31st of December at midnight, UN peacekeeping missions will finish in Timor-Leste, and this is after more than 13 years of such UN involvement," UN mission chief Finn Reske-Nielsen told AFP.

"Timor Leste has now reached a stage in its development, politically and developmentally, where it can in fact stand on its own feet."

The UN-administered referendum in 1999 ended Indonesia's brutal 24-year occupation, in which around 183,000 people – then a quarter of the population – died from fighting, starvation or disease.

The global body oversaw East Timor until 2002, when an independent government took over. The only major violence since 2006 was a failed assassination attempt on then-president Jose Ramos-Horta in 2008.