Subject: AAP: Last Australian Timor troops head home


June 24, 2005, Friday

NT: Last Australian Timor troops head home

By Karen Michelmore

DARWIN, June 24

Australia's six-year peacekeeping mission in East Timor has ended, with the final troops leaving the tiny South-East Asian nation early today.

The last 14 troops were farewelled by East Timorese government officials before boarding a United Nations flight in Dili this morning.

They will transit in Darwin, where it is expected they will meet the Defence Minister Robert Hill, before flying into Brisbane this evening.

The UN arrived in East Timor in September 1999 after locals voted overwhelmingly for independence, sparking attacks by Jakarta-backed militia.

Australia's national commander in East Timor Lieutenant Colonel Brian Cox said it was apt the UN operation had changed to a political mission in the past few weeks.

He said there was no longer any military threat in the world's newest nation.

"I think the political mission is needed," Colonel Cox said.

"They are certainly already into the aspect of nation building now.

"They are well ahead of the ball game."

The operation has slowly been wound down over the past few weeks with the end of the United Nation's peacekeeping mission.

A new smaller UN political mission has been established to help build the impoverished nation.

Colonel Cox said two Australian troops would remain in East Timor until early July as the new mission is established.

They will be replaced by two lieutenant colonels and a major who will work in the UN team of 15 to help train the Timor border protection unit in the new mission.

Australia also has a further 24 soldiers in a separate bilateral defence support program with East Timor.

As the troops waited to leave Dili today, Colonel Cox said one of the soldiers had commented he felt like a child before Christmas.

"They are very eager to get home, they are very excited," he said.

"They are very proud of the work they have done here.

"I think this has been one of the most successful UN operations that Australia has been part of.

"Australia has made a significant contribution since 1999 to the stability and security of East Timor."

A total of 13,000 Australian troops served in East Timor during the past six years.

At the peak of the operation, one of Australia's biggest military ventures since Vietnam, there were 5,000 Australian soldiers in East Timor.

They were due to arrive at Brisbane airport at 6pm.

Defence Force chief General Peter Cosgrove, who led the first Australian troops into Dili, said he is confident East Timor's army will be able to defend the country.

"I think they're very proudly patriotic and prepared to deter small groups of people who might wish in some way to breach the laws of Timor Leste," he told ABC radio.

"There is a peace now which is part of the democracy which is East Timor.

"There are laws of the land and standing behind the police is a small but well trained, lightly armed East Timor defence force which I'm sure will do the job against the sorts of pressures it might face, but we hope it doesn't in the future".

LOAD-DATE: June 24, 2005

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