Subject: AFP: East Timor army takes over district from UN force for first time

Agence France Presse July 23, 2002

East Timor army takes over district from UN force for first time


East Timor's army on Tuesday replaced United Nations peacekeepers in one district of the new nation -- the first step in a 20-month handover which will see the blue berets bow out.

The army took over responsibility for the Lautem district in the east, the UN said.

The UN force commander in East Timor, Thai Lieutenant General Winai Phattiyakul, described the handover as "another landmark in the history of East Timor."

Winai, quoted in a statement received in Jakarta, said the UN Mission of Support in East Timor (UNMISET) "will continue to support East Timor as per its UN mandate and is committed to maintaining a calm and stable environment throughout East Timor."

The territory became independent on May 20 after 24 years of harsh Indonesian rule and 32 months of UN stewardship.

The army will gradually take over the remaining 12 districts over the next 20 months before UNMISET winds up in June 2004.

The UN mission now has 5,000 troops, 1,200 police and 100 civilian experts.

But UN Secretary General Kofi Annan warned in April that the gradual reduction of the peacekeeping force up to June 2004 "is premised on the key assumption that the threat from the militia elements will gradually reduce."

Pro-Jakarta local militias, organised by the Indonesian army, waged a campaign of intimidation before the August 1999 independence vote and a "scorched earth" revenge campaign afterwards.

More than 1,000 people were killed, whole towns were destroyed and more than 250,000 people either fled or were forced across the border into Indonesian West Timor.

In the face of world condemnation Indonesia accepted an Australian-led peacekeeping force and in October 1999 the UN took over the territory.

President Xanana Gusmao, army chief Brigadier General Taur Matan Ruak and local UN chief Kamalesh Sharma attended the handover ceremony.

East Timor's army, currently 650-strong, was largely recruited from the ranks of Falintil, the guerrilla force which once battled Indonesian occupation.

It is due to grow over three years to reach 1,500 regulars and 1,500 reservists.

Recruits are being trained by members of the Australian, South Korean, Portuguese and New Zealand contingents.

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