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UN: Militia Groups Still a Threat in East Timor - 2003-03-05

U.N. officials say militia groups that fought against East Timor's independence from Indonesia remain a threat to the new nation - prompting U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan to recommend that peacekeepers remain longer in East Timor.

U.N. officials say they want to slow down the phased withdrawal of peacekeepers to give East Timorese security forces more time to prepare for their eventual departure.

"I think the early success of the U.N. mission perhaps created an impression that everything was going better than expected," says Colin Stewart, a U.N. political affairs officer based in Indonesia's capital Jakarta. "I think sort of recent events have caused the U.N. mission in East Timor to re-evaluate its expectations in terms of the security situation in East Timor."

There have been several violent incidents on East Timor's border with the Indonesian-held province of West Timor this year. At least seven people have died and officials blame militias loyal to Indonesia.

U.N. officials say the Indonesian military formed armed militia groups as part of a campaign to create chaos and prevent East Timor from breaking free of Indonesian rule. The violence steadily increased throughout 1999 - the year when East Timorese voted for independence in a U.N. sponsored referendum.

The militias, however, killed hundreds of people in a two week frenzy of violence after the vote. Hundreds of thousands were forced to flee their homes. The violence prompted the deployment of international peacekeepers to East Timor.

Mr. Stewart says the recent violent incidents have come after three years of relative stability in the border area. "Since late last year we've seen an upsurge in incidents that have been blamed upon people who have come across the border - former pro-Indonesian militias. I'm not aware that we've drawn any conclusions specifically about the origin of these people, or who organized it and that sort of thing," he says. "But there have been a number of incidents in which people have been killed - and the perpetrators have been found to be people who have come across the border from West Timor."

After three years under U.N. administration, East Timor became fully independent in May of last year. The current U.N. peacekeeping mission in East Timor is intended to help the new nation in its initial phase as a new nation. It is comprised of more than 4,000 international troops and police officers and 2,300 international and local civilian staff.

If U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan's proposal to slow down the pace of the withdrawal is approved, an estimated 1,750 troops will remain in East Timor until May 2004 - six months later than previously planned.