Subject: Australian troops to return from East Timor by 2013

Jun 23, 2010

Peacekeepers can leave soon

SYDNEY - INTERNATIONAL peacekeepers are not likely to be necessary in East Timor beyond 2013, the tiny country's president said on Wednesday, describing the situation as 'absolutely peaceful.'

Jose Ramos-Horta said he expected the 1,565-strong, Australian-led United Nations peacekeeping force to hold steady until national elections, due mid-2012, after which he anticipated it would begin to draw down.

'I believe that this number should stay more or less stable until final withdrawal, which we might estimate to be early 2013,' Mr Ramos-Horta said during a five-day official visit to Australia.

The UN arrived in 1999 to help organise a vote on independence from Indonesia, and was forced to call in peacekeepers to quell bloody reprisals by anti-independence militants that killed an estimated 1,400 people. The force's strength dwindled as the situation stabilised, but troop numbers were again boosted in 2006 after a spasm of violence between rival gangs and factions of the security forces drove 100,000 people from their homes.

National elections in June 2007 went off peacefully in what was hailed as a turning point for the country. However, violence returned less than a year later when Mr Ramos-Horta was gunned down by rebel soldiers outside his house. He only survived after emergency surgery in Australia. The president on Wednesday said Timor was now 'peaceful as never before.'

Australia in May flagged that it would begin replacing full-time soldiers in East Timor, which number about 400, with reservists 'due to an improved security environment.'Prime Minister Kevin Rudd offered his full support Wednesday if the UN Security Council extended its East Timor stabilisation mission by another year when it reviews operations next February. 'Should the government of Timor-Leste require further assistance for the period of that year, we'd respond to such a request positively,' he said. -- AFP

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