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East Timor confident about security in post-UN future

Agence France Presse - February 2, 2012

Dili – East Timor President Jose Ramos-Horta said Thursday that his young nation was capable of handling its own security after UN troops depart at the end of this year, despite fears of violence.

The United Nations Integrated Mission in East Timor (UNMIT) has less than 1,000 police and military advisors in the poor Southeast Asian nation, bolstered by about 460 Australian troops and 75 soldiers from New Zealand.

UN and Australian forces are expected to play an important role during the March 17 presidential election, in which Ramos-Horta is seeking a second five-year term.

"I can drive the streets of Dili in my Mini Moke without any bother whatsoever. Tell me what world leader could do that?" Ramos-Horta said in an AFP interview.

"Local police and military are now taking responsibility for East Timor's security. This will increase as the UN peacekeeping forces and the Australian troops draw down progressively by the end of 2012.

"We are having constant meetings with the UN and the Australian Defence Force and we all agree the situation (is now) safe and stabilised in East Timor, barring a few incidents."

Both the president and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao have said it is integral for the foreign troops to remain during the presidential election and general elections in June – but they only need to stay until the end of 2012.

The president confirmed that UN forces would leave at the end of this year, but the Australian government has not indicated when it would withdraw forces.

East Timor's second election as a free country comes as it marks 10 years since independence, but it was on the brink of civil war just a few years ago and Ramos-Horta was nearly killed in an assassination attempt in 2008. There are fears the presidential election could spark more unrest.

UN and Australian forces have been training East Timorese police and armed forces since Indonesia ended its 24-year military occupation in 1999.

East Timor, a half-island nation with a population of 1.1 million, broke away from Indonesia and won formal independence in 2002. The country is banking on vast offshore oil and gas fields in the Timor Sea to build up the economy. (tm-afq/ac)