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Timor-Leste: as demonstrators mass, UN envoys seek to calm tensions

Timor-Leste: as demonstrators mass, UN envoys seek to calm tensions

Sukehiro Hasegawa
With thousands of demonstrators milling around in the Timor-Leste capital of Dili, United Nations envoys today stepped up their efforts to calm tensions and plan for a possible expanded UN police force in the small South-East Asian nation that the world body shepherded to independence from Indonesia just four years ago.

Meanwhile, Secretary-General Kofi Annan appointed three members to an Independent Special Commission of Inquiry to investigate the lethal violence that shook the country in April and May and recommend measures to ensure those guilty of any crimes and serious violations of human rights are brought to account.

Mr. Annan’s Special representative in Timor-Leste Sukehiro Hasegawa called on political leaders to ensure that their followers and supporters restrain themselves from any behaviour that might result in further violence amid tensions attributed to differences between eastern and western regions.

Some 3,000 demonstrators riding in 150 trucks descended on Dili Thursday in a show of support for former Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, who resigned Monday. They were escorted by troops from the Combined Task Force from Australia, New Zealand, Portugal and Malaysia, invited in by the Government to help quell the violence.

On Monday, thousands of anti-Alkatiri demonstrators circulated throughout the city in a similar number of trucks.

The crisis erupted in late April with the dismissal of 600 soldiers, a third of the armed forces. Ensuing violence cost at least 37 lives and drove over 155,000 people, 15 per cent of the total population, from their homes into makeshift camps or to host families.

Mr. Annan’s Special Envoy Ian Martin, who arrived in Dili on Monday, held a series of high-level meetings with government leaders on the next stages of the UN assistance, meeting with government ministers, including Senior Minister Jose Ramos-Horta and Minister of State Ana Pessoa.

In a separate meeting with President Xanana Gusmão, he and UN police advisor Mark Kroeker exchanged concrete ideas on the role of an expanded UN police force.

The world body first set up the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) in 1999 after the country voted for independence from Indonesia, which had taken it over at the end of Portugal’s colonial rule in 1974. Mr. Martin was Mr. Annan's Special Representative in the territory there at that time.

This robust structure was kept until independence in 2002, when UNTAET was replaced with a downsized operation, the UN Mission of Support in East Timor (UNMISET). This in turn was succeeded by the current, even smaller UN office in Timor-Leste (UNOTIL).

Violence yesterday, in which at least 20 houses were burned in Dili, threatened to hamper UN food distribution to tens of thousands of already hard-pressed people sheltered in displaced persons camps.

The three members Mr. Annan appointed to the inquiry commission are Paulo Sergio Pinheiro of Brazil, who will chair it, Zelda Holtsman of South Africa and Ralph Zacklin of the United Kingdom.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour set up the panel Commission at Mr. Annan’s request after the Timor-Leste Government asked for it and the Security Council welcomed the ideas. It will sit in Dili, begin its work in July, and report its findings to the Secretary-General within three months.