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UN to Scale Back E. Timor Peacekeeping Force - 2002-05-17

As East Timor prepares for independence May 20, the United Nations Security Council Friday approved a pared down peacekeeping operation for the new nation that would be phased out within two years.

The new operation will consist of 5,000 military personnel, down from nearly 8,000 at its peak last year. It will also include 1,250 civilian police, and as many as 100 administrators, who will be attached to various ministries in East Timor, as well as human rights groups.

East Timor's president-elect, Xanana Gusmao, had appealed to the United Nations not to forsake his country after May 20. He warned violence remains a constant threat, after the bitterness of the last few years, and asked that UN troops assist East Timor's fledgling institutions in maintaining law and order.

The United Nations sent troops to East Timor in 1999, after pro-Indonesia militias wreaked vengeance on the population following a vote for independence. It has run the country ever since.

The Security Council shored up its commitment to East Timor with a unanimous vote for the new peacekeeping operation, even as UN officials prepare to turn over the keys, so to speak, to the newly-elected government. Secretary-General Kofi Annan will be in East Timor for the celebration. He will address the nation and its leaders about a 30 minutes before midnight, Sunday.

"Then just a few minutes before midnight," explained UN spokesman Fred Eckhard, "the UN flag will be lowered, and at midnight itself, East Timor will be declared independent, and the East Timor flag will be raised."

East Timor is expected to join the United Nations shortly thereafter, becoming the world organization's 190th member.

UN diplomats concede East Timor faces huge challenges once the celebrations are over. Among the more sensitive issues is the reintegration of the former pro-Jakarta fighters, many of whom have expressed a desire to return to their communities. The militias are blamed for killing hundreds of people, herding many into camps, and burning down most of the island's buildings.

Development experts say East Timor needs to focus as soon as possible on its economy. Its nearly 750,000 people are considered among the poorest in Asia.