Subject: IHT: Timorese Praise the Australians

International Herald Tribune Thursday, February 3, 2000

Timorese Praise the Australians

Local Leader Calls Peace Operation 'Almost Flawless'

By Michael Richardson International Herald Tribune

JAKARTA - When several Australian soldiers serving under United Nations authority in East Timor were accused recently by Timorese women of sexual harassment, an independence leader, Jose Ramos-Horta, spoke out.

While deploring the harassment, he stressed that it was a ''very isolated'' case in a situation where several thousand troops under Australian command entered the former Indonesian province in September.

They arrived to restore peace after pro-Indonesian militias unleashed terror and destruction to punish East Timor for having voted for independence.

''I must say that the Interfet behavior here so far has been almost flawless,'' Mr. Ramos-Horta said, referring to the Australian-led International Force for East Timor. ''I haven't heard of a single peacekeeping operation in the world that matches Interfet in the way it conducts itself. All the contingents remain extremely popular with everybody.''

Yet, as Interfet began the formal handover of responsibility on Tuesday to a fully-fledged UN peacekeeping force, officials and analysts expressed concern that the really hard part of the United Nations' work in East Timor was only just beginning, now that security had been restored.

The pro-Indonesian militia members have been confined to neighboring Indonesian West Timor, and the Indonesian military leaders have been persuaded to set up an effective policing operation along the border.

Lieutenant General John Sanderson, a former head of the Australian armed forces and commander of the UN operation in Cambodia from 1991-1993, said that the UN transitional administration in East Timor had been given ''the most demanding task yet attempted by the international community'' in preparing a devastated and impoverished territory for economic self-sufficiency and democratic statehood.

Some East Timorese leaders say they hope that independence can come as early as the end of 2001. But UN officials say it may take at least three years to meet requirements for statehood.

''While many able and concerned UN hands are gathering for this mission, it is an impossible task to assemble enough quality people in time to meet the expectations of the East Timorese,'' said General Sanderson, now retired, who recently visited the territory.

''There is plenty of scope for political troublemaking if events don't move faster; the sense on the streets of Dili is that this is already happening.''

As Timorese return from camps in West Timor, tensions are rising. People suspected of being Indonesian sympathizers or militia supporters are shunned or maltreated.

Crime is increasing, especially in Dili. About 80 percent of the East Timor population is estimated to be unemployed, and growing anger at the lack of paid work has exploded into violence on several occasions - most recently when 7,000 East Timorese who had lined up to apply for 2,000 UN jobs in Dili began fighting and throwing rocks.

The Australian Interfet commander, Major General Peter Cosgrove, said he believed the violence would not continue long and was a release of pent-up frustration after almost 24 years of rule by Indonesia.

''Now we've returned security, people feel safe enough to have a riot, they feel that they're not oppressed, that they can assemble on the street to express a grievance without being shot at,'' he said.

But the UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan, in a somber report Friday to the Security Council in New York, expressed concern at the potential for social unrest here.

Some independence leaders and Interfet officers fear the unrest could be exploited by militia hard-liners seeking to make a comeback from bases in West Timor during the changeover this month of the UN military command from Australia to the Philippines.

The transition to the peacekeeping role from peace enforcement is expected to be finished by the end of this month.

It is expected that 23 nations will contribute about 8,900 troops and 1,640 civilian police officers to the new operation, although about 80 percent of them will simply be transferred from Interfet.

But only 350 UN police officers have arrived in East Timor, and they are not armed. The first armed officers will arrive soon.

''The devastating effects of the systematic destruction and violence last September and the consequent cessation of civil and public services will continue to be serious impediments for the foreseeable future,'' Mr. Annan said.

''Moreover, widespread unemployment and the disruption of the education system and other social and public services, combined with the very high prices of food and other daily necessities, bear the potential for serious social problems.''

Three research groups, one at the United Nations and the others in Japan and Singapore, said in a recent joint report that the United Nations was in a race against time in East Timor.

This is because UN agencies have begun spending nearly $600 million in aid pledged by the international community to rebuild the shattered economy, construct democratic institutions, meet the basic needs of a traumatized people, develop a civil society and promote reconciliation.

''The aim of the UN is to begin the process of building a country and set up an administration that the East Timorese can run on their own,'' the research groups said.

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