by Staff Writers
Sydney (AFP) Nov 21, 2012
Australia said Wednesday it was pulling hundreds of troops out of East Timor, ending a six-year operation to support peace in Asia's youngest nation.
Defence Minister Stephen Smith said the Australian-led International Stabilisation Force (ISF) will cease its security operations on November 22 and start withdrawing from East Timor, also known as Timor-Leste.
The ISF, which includes soldiers from New Zealand, was deployed when violence broke out in 2006 and currently has some 460 personnel, 390 of whom are from Australia.
"We congratulate the Timor-Leste Government on establishing Timor-Leste as an independent nation," Smith said in a joint statement with Foreign Minister Bob Carr.
Apart from that military mission, Australia is also committed to the United Nations Police who are scheduled to withdraw by December 31.
Twenty-four Australian officers remain in the UN Police, the last of whom will leave on December 15.
The ministers said the nation's economy had grown and institutions strengthened, culminating in three successful rounds of national elections this year and the formation of a new government.
"Timorese security services have risen to the challenge and served their nation well throughout these events," they said.
The ISF withdrawal will continue through April 2013 as equipment is sent home, bases closed and property and buildings returned to the Timorese government, the statement said.
Australia's defence and police engagement with the country will continue, the ministers added.
Last month UN peacekeepers in East Timor handed full responsibility for policing back to the young nation.
The UN deployment, which arrived in 2006 after a political crisis in which dozens were killed and hundreds of thousands displaced, began withdrawing in earnest in October in line with a timetable to leave by the end of the year.
At its peak, the mission had 1,600 peacekeepers.
International forces have been stationed in East Timor since 1999 when the Timorese voted for independence from Indonesia after a 24-year brutal occupation. Formal independence was recognised in 2002.
The country saw an influx of UN peacekeepers again in 2006, when a mass desertion among the armed forces prompted fighting between military factions and police, and street violence left at least 37 people.
The only major violence since then has been a failed assassination attempt against then-president Jose Ramos-Horta in 2008.
East Timor is an impoverished half-island nation of 1.1 million people largely dependent on oil and gas reserves off its coasts.
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