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Timor-Leste: Peacekeeping drawdown begins

IRIN - July 5, 2012

Dili – The UN peacekeeping force is on track to begin withdrawing from Timor-Leste in October 2012 after a "remarkably peaceful" parliamentary election campaign concluded on 4 July, ahead of the election on 7 July.

The United Nations Integrated Mission (UNMIT) in Timor-Leste began in 2006 after a mutiny by soldiers and a breakdown of order led the government to request international support.In terms of the mission's Joint Transition Plan, UNMIT will withdraw if the parliamentary elections are conducted in line with international standards and without major violence. Two rounds of presidential elections in March and April both took place peacefully.

"We've seen campaigning that's been much more peaceful than what we saw in 2007, and it's probably a reflection of a much higher level of maturity of the democratic system in Timor-Leste," said Finn Reske-Nielsen, the head of UNMIT, who described the month-long parliamentary election campaign as a "remarkably quiet and peaceful set of activities", despite the expectation that this election would be more hotly contested than the presidential poll.

If stability prevails after the election, Reske-Nielsen told IRIN the drawdown of some 2,800 peacekeeping staff will begin in October, although electoral personnel are likely to withdraw sooner. Some 150 staff have already left.

"Our civilian staff will be withdrawn in a few waves, the first in October, then November, and finally in December. At the end of December we should have a very small staff contingent on the ground."

A small political mission is expected to replace UNMIT in 2013 but Reske-Nielsen said this mission's mandate was not yet clear. "The only thing we've been told is the government would like to see a role for such a mission in helping to develop the next generation of political leaders." The staff is likely to be much smaller and may involve a human rights presence or continued support to the national police force (PNTL).

There has been speculation that the International Stabilization Force (ISF), composed of troops from Australia and New Zealand, will also withdraw later in 2012, but force commander Luke Foster told IRIN no date has been set and the next government would make this decision.

Foster said the ISF would maintain a low profile during the election period. "We still stand ready to provide the support if it's required... our assessment is that support won't be required."

In March this year ISF closed two bases, handing over control to the Timor-Leste government. The remaining bases are to be handed over "in due course".

While no decision has been made on the date of the withdrawal, Foster said his assessment was that the PNTL and the military are able to maintain law and order. "There is no doubt that in the last twelve months their professionalism, their capability and their ability to respond have improved, and that all bodes well for the future." (mw/pt/he)