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Timor-Leste: UN official ‘hits ground running'

Senior UN official ‘hits ground running’ in seeking to resolve Timor-Leste violence

With a senior United Nations official on the ground in Timor-Leste today seeking to defuse the violence that has torn through the small country in recent weeks, UN agencies have resumed food distributions to camps holding 100,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) but conditions in them are worsening due to overcrowding and rain.

“He hit the ground running and he’s been in a series of meetings already,” Secretary-General Kofi Annan said of Ian Martin, head of the UN Human Rights Mission in Nepal, whom he dispatched urgently to a country which the world body shepherded to independence from Indonesia in 2002.

Mr. Annan told reporters in New York the UN would need to carefully assess the lessons of the current unrest to see whether it had withdrawn its peacekeeping forces too soon.

The UN office in Timor-Leste (UNOTIL) reported that although violence, which began last month with the dismissal of 594 soldiers (a third of the total armed forces), has decreased, looting continued and IDP camps had been attacked. Australian troops have already landed in the country at the Government’s request to help restore calm.

According to an assessment completed today by UN agencies and non-governmental organization (NGO) staff, some 100,000 persons are being sheltered in IDP camps, including 65,000 around Dili, the capital, whose population is 150,000.

The UN World Food Programme says it has rushed to Timor-Leste five days worth of rations for 95,000 people, but warned that more help is needed, not only with food but with shelter, sanitation, and health care.

UNOTIL said the numbers of displaced persons were swelling because of continued lack of security. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) is sending in an extra team to coordinate UN and NGO assistance.

Mr. Annan, who called the situation “sad and tragic,” said he is expecting a political assessment as to what went wrong from Mr. Martin, who was his Special Representative in East Timor in 1999, as it was called then, when the country voted for independence from Indonesia, which had occupied it after Portugal left in 1974.

Asked whether the UN had drawn down the peacekeeping force too quickly, Mr. Annan said: “There has been a sense that we tend to leave conflict areas too soon, and this is one of the issues that we hope the (newly formed) Peacebuilding Commission will help us address and get the message across - that when we get into these situations, we should be in for the medium to the longer term and take a longer term view, rather than a short-term view, believing that we can leave after elections.”

The world organization originally set up the UN Transitional Administration (UNTAET) in 1999 to usher the country to independence in 2002, after which it replaced it with a downsized operation, the UN Mission of Support in East Timor (UNMISET). This in turn was replaced by the current residual UNOTIL.

“Would it have made a difference if the UN had stayed longer - if we had not drawn down our forces too quickly?” Mr. Annan asked. “This is something that I must assess and we have developed a follow-on mission, and I'm going to have to re-think our own proposal for the follow-on force.

“But we also need to be careful because of the way different missions are seen to be treated. Some sometimes tend to think that there is a racist content in official UN thinking, when we are dealing with some of these issues, but I don't think that is entirely correct.

“But that is a perception that we also need to address,” he added, noting that the UN has been in Cyprus “for ages” as well as spending extended time in Bosnia and Herzegovina and still administering the Serbian province of Kosovo after taking it over in 1999.

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