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Wednesday, 23 February, 2000, 16:07 GMT
Interfet leaves East Timor

General Peter Cosgrove watches the flag being folded
General Peter Cosgrove watches the flag being folded

The Australian-led international military force in East Timor, Interfet, has ended its five-month peacekeeping operation in the former Indonesian territory - leaving it safe but in ruins.

East Timor
At a departure ceremony in the capital Dili, General Peter Cosgrove, who led the force, said only luck and discipline had averted the outbreak of fighting with Indonesian troops.

Interfet will be replaced by a 23-nation peacekeeping operation of around 9,000 troops - 80% of whom will have transferred from Interfet - which will be one of the UN's biggest and most expensive military operations.

The force arrived in East Timor in September after the territory voted overwhelmingly for independence from Indonesia. Tension was running high at the time, with the presence of thousands of Indonesian troops.

General Cosgrove said that a crisis was "very close on a number of occasions".

'Important act'

Asked whether it was luck that there were no clashes erupted, the general said: "Absolute luck - on a number of occasions."

The general sailed out of Dili around midday on Wednesday, shortly after the emerald green Interfet flag was lowered for the last time at the low-key departure ceremony.

UN and Interfet commanders The UN's commander (left) with his Interfet counterpart
However, the general stressed that it was "not all Indonesian soldiers who were ill disciplined".

"Some were and those were the people who gave us an extraordinary amount of worry," he said.

Before setting sail for Darwin aboard the Australian troop carrier HMS Jervis Bay along with 300 troops from Australia and Thailand, General Cosgrove was presented with a set of military fatigues of the former resistance movement Falintil.

The leader of the independence group, Xanana Gusmao, thanked Interfet for its work in the territory.

"It was an important act, the troops were able to avoid another bloodshed," Mr Gusmao said.

'Viva Australia'

General Cosgrove said peace and security had largely been restored to the territory but warned that some parts of the border areas in Oecussi and in the west of East Timor remained tense.

The general later greeted a group of young Timorese men who had gathered at the harbour to see him off with the words: "I wish you a long life of freedom."

The group replied with cries of "Viva Australia".

The new force is headed by a Philippines general, Jaimie de los Santos.

The United Nations expects to administer the territory for two to three years, leading to independence.

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See also:
23 Feb 00 |  Asia-Pacific
In pictures: Interfet leaves East Timor
05 Nov 99 |  Asia-Pacific
East Timor's brave new world
10 Feb 00 |  Asia-Pacific
Timor militia leader arrested
12 Feb 00 |  Asia-Pacific
East Timorese cheer Portuguese president
03 Feb 00 |  Asia-Pacific
Timor militias 'will be disarmed'
09 Feb 00 |  Asia-Pacific
Timor police to carry guns

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