Kiwis unlikely to return to Timor

A senior commander in the New Zealand and Australian security operation in East Timor thinks it's unlikely his troops will be called back on similar work soon.

The International Stabilisation Force, which is led by Australia, was created when unrest broke out in the Southeast Asian nation in 2006.

New Zealand soldiers, who had been in the country on previous United Nations-backed operations from 1999, have been a constant presence in the past six years.

During that time the New Zealand Government has spent about $100 million on 13 military rotations and the early involvement of the air force, which patrolled the country's remote regions. This week the final contingent heads home.

The timing for the pullout was right, said stabilisation force deputy commander Lieutenant Colonel Steve Watts, the most senior New Zealander in the force.

He said the East Timor of today was incomparable with the violence-plagued and volatile nation it was.

"That's been finished for some years. Is there still crime around here? Yes, like any community, including New Zealand cities," Lieutenant Colonel Watts said.

Pulling out now meant the Defence Force didn't "overstay its welcome".

About 80 Kiwi personnel are in East Timor. In a week, only five will remain to help the Timorese military.

Lieutenant Colonel Watts said he hoped the local police and security forces would be able to manage on their own. "It's possible [the force could be called for help again], but we like to think it's not probable."

Foreign security mandates were supposed to expire on December 31, but that was brought forward two months following the trouble-free national elections run by police earlier this year.

As of October 31, East Timor was in charge of its internal security.

The withdrawal of the stabilisation force and the UN operation could leave one significant hole, however, as the 1000 to 1500 Timorese people who have jobs with the missions face an uncertain future in a country where unemployment is rampant.

"There will be some people hurting when we go. The government's aware of that and I guess has policies in place to deal with that."

East Timor gained independence from Indonesia in 2002, after voting overwhelmingly in 1999 for self-governance. At the turn of the century the former Portuguese colony of 1.1 million people was plagued by violence, after 25 years of brutal Indonesian rule.

Manawatu Standard