|Australian peacekeepers board a Royal Australian Air Force plane to leave Dili airport as the UN has ended peacekeeping force in East Timor|
The Australian military has begun withdrawing the last of its peacekeeping troops from East Timor, ending a six-year mission that strained ties with neighboring Indonesia.
Australia on Monday marked the end of its peacekeeping mission in East Timor by handing over control of the Moleana military base to the East Timor government at a ceremony attended by military officials from both countries.
Australia sent troops to East Timor in 1999 after pro-Indonesian militias, many backed by the Indonesian military, laid waste to the tiny country after it voted overwhelmingly for independence from Jakarta in a U.N. sponsored vote.
More than a thousand people died in the violence, which ended only after the United Nations sent in peacekeeping forces led by Australia.
Nelson Santos, East Timor's secretary general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, says his country would have liked the Australian troops to stay longer.
"They brought into this country peace and stability and confidence to the people," he said. "And the longer they stay, the longer we would have time to train our police force, to improve in some areas that we might be weak, which we are weak in some areas.
"They would have been giving us more time to improve," continued Mr. Santos. "However, we think that it's not a very dramatic thing that now the peacekeeping operations came to an end."
Mr. Santos points out the withdrawal of the Australian troops does not signal the end of the U.N. presence in the former Portuguese colony.
"It's not the end of the U.N. We still have in Timor Leste a number of police advisors in the vicinity of 45, and we also have a number of military advisors whom will be training our police force, our defense force, who will continue to improve in its capabilities," he added.
Australia's lead role in the U.N. mission caused a rift with Indonesia that has only recently begun to heal.
Relations between Canberra and Jakarta have improved following Australian help in the wake of the 2002 Bali bombings and last year's tsunami.