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UN on track for East Timor withdrawal

Australian Associated Press - June 2, 2011

Karlis Salna – The United Nations remains on track to withdraw from East Timor at the end of 2012 but says international partners will need to maintain a significant presence in the country beyond next year's elections.

The political director of the UN's mission in East Timor, Gary Gray, has also conceded that while the country has largely stabilised since violence in 2006 brought it to the brink of civil war, the peace that now exists remains fragile.

East Timorese will vote in two elections in 2012, to decide the government and presidency, in what will also mark 10 years of independence for the nation.

Many people in East Timor, however, remain worried about the possibility of a return to the violence of 2006, particularly in view of the planned withdrawal of international forces. The UN mission, which includes 1397 police and military advisers, is scheduled to begin withdrawing after the elections.

Mr Gray said there had been a marked improvement in both the security and political environment since the UN took over the functions of the police in 2006. "It's stabilised since the 2006 problems and we're pretty confident that's going to continue and we're going to get through the key event being the elections next year," he said.

But he said it was also understandable that people in East Timor remain anxious about the security situation, and particularly what might happen after 2012.

"I think you do have to acknowledge that there's some continuing fragility there, and in certain institutions that haven't matured and developed yet," he said.

"That's one of the things we're addressing, especially in regard to the police, and one of the reasons why we will continue to have a significant UN police presence there until up to and through this electoral period."

He added that it was because of that "fragility" that it "will be important for the bilateral partners to continue being involved even after 2012in a significant way in these areas".

While Australia has not yet set a definite withdrawal date, East Timor President Jose Ramos-Horta has said he wants the 400 defence force personnel still in the country to also begin pulling out at the end of 2012.

Australian Defence Minister Stephen Smith said in April that a decision would be made following the elections. "We think, as does Timor-Leste, that the appropriate point to start making judgments about these matters is in the aftermath of the 2012 elections," he said at the time.

Mr Gray also said that it appeared clear from the current political environment in East Timor that next year's poll was unlikely to usher in any new blood in terms of leaders for the country.

Since the first elections, the positions of power in East Timor have swapped between Dr Ramos-Horta, current prime minister Xanana Gusmao and Mari Alkatiri, who was the inaugural prime minister in 2002. "It looks like in terms of the election cycle in 2012 that's what we're going to continue to see," Mr Gray said.