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POLITICS-EAST TIMOR: UN Prepares to Take Charge

UNITED NATIONS, Nov 3 1999 (IPS) - The United Nations stepped up plans this week for a transitional authority in East Timor and officials expected new administrators would take charge of the Pacific island state by late January.

UN Under Secretary-General Sergio Vieira de Mello is scheduled to take up his duties as East Timor’s first UN administrator by mid-November, and already has held talks on setting up the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET).

Alexander Downer, Australia’s foreign minister, met UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and other top officials here Tuesday to reassure them of Canberra’s continued role in the UN peacekeeping force.

Downer said that the Australian-led International Force, or Interfet, would hand over authority to UNTAET by late January or mid-February of next year.

“We will be looking to provide around 1,700 troops” for UNTAET, which will comprise some 9,000 troops and more than 1,600 police officers in all, Downer said.

He noted that Australia’s contribution would be a decrease from its troop level in the Interfet operation, in which it has provided more than 5,000 of the more than 8,500 troops deployed.

Some of the slack would be taken up by Asian nations, including Malaysia, which announced plans to send some 1,700 soldiers for UNTAET.

Yet the replacement of Australians by Asians concerned some East Timorese officials, including Nobel laureate Jose Ramos Horta, who threatened “civil disobedience” if Malaysia were to take charge of UNTAET.

Ramos Horta has worried about statements like those made by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohammed, who accused the Australian Interfet troops of being “belligerent.’

Mahathir previously had doubted the need for the Aug. 30 vote in East Timor, in which voters overwhelmingly opted for independence from Indonesia.

“We don’t need them,” Ramos Horta said last month of the possibility of Malaysian peace keepers.

UN officials, mindful of regional politics, however were equally worried that Australia’s dominant role in East Timor peacekeeping, in the long term, would upset nearby Asian states.

Officials reportedly were considering Malaysian command of UNTAET although Australia still would have a substantial presence in the force.

Downer said that Annan would decide who should command the peace keepers, adding that Canberra never intended to be such a powerful force on the ground in East Timor. “We were the only country that was really able to make a significant and early contribution,” he explained about Australia’s role in Interfet.

Still, UN officials wanted to ensure that the peacekeeping presence in East Timor remained strong, even if Australia cut back on the number of its troops.

Before Interfet was deployed in late September, Indonesian troops and pro-Indonesia militias destroyed much of East Timor, displacing more than half of the state’s 890,000 people.

Vieira de Mello has urged governments to provide nearly 200 million dollars for humanitarian aid in East Timor and also to press for the return of hundreds of thousands of East Timorese who are living in camps in the Indonesian province of West Timor.

He argued that access was still restricted to some camps in West Timor by militias – most of whom had slipped into West Timor since the September violence.

“There has been a trickle” of East Timorese refugees returning from the West in recent weeks, Vieira de Mello said last week. But so far, he noted, there has been no major shift among the more than 200,000 East Timorese who are estimated to be living in West Timor.

The office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has tried to strike a more aggressive stance in securing access to the refugees.

This week, UNHCR workers carried out several surprise visits to refugee camps in the West Timorese cities of Kupang and Atambua,and picked up 5,000 refugees who wanted to return home to East Timor. The operations had been risky, with militias harassing and throwing stones at UNHCR staff, the agency said.

Despite such problems, UN officials remained generally upbeat about East Timor. The last Indonesian troops left East Timor over the weekend, finally ending the 24-year struggle between Jakarta and East Timor’s pro-independence movement.

The withdrawal has greatly strengthened the political wing of that movement, the National Council of Timorese Resistance, and its armed wing, the National Liberation Force or FALINTIL.

Pro-independence leader Xanana Gusmao is widely expected to lead the country to independence within the next two to three years.

Vieira de Mello also praised FALINTIL, which he said had cooperated with Interfet troops and shown restraint.

As a result, when the United Nations helps set up a police force for East Timor, it would consider FALINTIL officers for membership – but “as individuals, not as units,” he cautioned.

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