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US Official Says East Timor Needs UN Help to Overcome Crisis

A U.S. official has told members of Congress that the Bush administration is committed to helping East Timor overcome its recent crisis amid continuing violence.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Eric John told a hearing of the House [of Representatives] Asia-Pacific Subcommittee the United States is working with the United Nations and other countries to help restore stability in East Timor:

"The U.S. is working with East Timor's numerous bilateral donors and friends to determine how best to assist it during this crisis. We are consulting with them on a mandate of a successor U.N. mission requested by the government of East Timor," he said.

Deputy Assistant Secretary John says Washington believes that should include what he calls a robust electoral assistance program, a strong police component, and civilian human rights advisors.

Once a United Nations assessment team returns and reports, John says the U.N. Security Council will determine the mandate of a successor mission.

As Wednesday's hearing was taking place, new violence broke out in the East Timor capital, Dili, between rival factions including supporters of the former Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri.

Republican Congressman Jim Leach, who heads the House Asia-Pacific subcommittee, expressed shock at the number of people who have fled Dili to escape violence. "One hundred fifty thousand is about 15 percent of the population. The whole country. That implies internal divisions that are truly stark," he said.

Congressman Leach says the apparent lack of cohesion reflected in that figure raises questions about the ability of East Timorese to move beyond the crisis.

While he predicts a very rocky road ahead, Deputy Assistant Secretary John adds he hopes the people of East Timor will be able to focus on the things that brought them together in the country's drive for independence:

"As a nation it is only three years old. And I think for everybody to just look at what has happened in the last two or three months and throw up their hands and think there has been a massive failure here and it's not going to go anywhere is the wrong view," he said.

At the same time, John suggests there must be an acknowledgement that the pace with which the United Nations reduced its role in East Timor was probably inappropriate with lessons that need to be learned.

Among what he calls vexing problems is the challenge of revising the election system and ensuring a more open and transparent democracy.

In the short term, the U.S. official says East Timor will need help from the United Nations to establish a new police mission there, with additional security training efforts to follow.