Subject: Age: Date set for East Timor handover

The Age Saturday 17 November 2001

Date set for East Timor handover


The two most senior figures in East Timor's transitional administration have profiled the country's first independent government, to take power in May 2002.

At a press conference in Dili yesterday, UN administrator Sergio Vieira de Mello and Chief Minister Mari Alkatiri, the territory's first elected leader, said that during talks with the UN Security Council in New York this month, they had received unanimous support for the proposal that East Timor should become independent on May 20 next year. On that day Mr Vieira de Mello will hand power to a new, smaller UN mission with mainly advisory powers.

And although a considerable exodus of UN staff is already under way, the new nation will continue to benefit from a substantial military shield of UN peacekeepers.

Mr Vieira de Mello said that the peacekeeping force would be reduced from 8000 to 5000 by the time of independence. "The bulk will be withdrawn from the eastern part of the country," he said, "where they will be replaced by the first operational battalion of the new East Timor Defence Force."

The present strength of peacekeepers on the border with Indonesia, which consists largely of Australian troops, should be maintained, although it could be affected by deployments to Afghanistan.

The UN administrator said the civilian component of the present mission would also be reduced drastically, but that the United Nation's Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) will propose to a donor's meeting in Oslo in December that it support the cost of 300 international experts to give close support to the new government. He said they would work in public administration, human rights and in the serious crimes unit.

On planned presidential elections, Mr Vieira de Mello said these would probably be held just before independence. But Mr Alkatiri said the final decision rested with the 88-member Constituent Assembly elected in August, which is drafting the constitution for the new nation. "The Assembly will decide," he said, "as well as the date of parliamentary elections. These could be soon after independence or two or three years later."

Mr Vieira de Mello said recent criticisms by East Timorese of UNTAET's record on human rights were unfounded, and the new administration would prosecute pending cases of crimes against humanity. "The criticisms levelled against our judiciary for 'slow motion' on serious crimes is unfair, all right? Unfair!" he stressed. "If you compare the record of our serious crimes unit, it is better than that of the special tribunals on the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda."

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