In East Timor, the first contingent of U.N. peacekeeping troops has left the territory. The U.N. administration in the territory is downsizing in anticipation of independence for the country next year.

U.N. officials told VOA Thursday that a battalion of 264 Kenyan soldiers has left the country, marking the beginning of the withdrawal of U.N. peacekeepers from East Timor.

A spokesman for the peacekeepers, Lieutenant Russell Wescombe, said 3,000 troops are to leave by next May, including contingents from Philippines, South Korea and Jordan. "There'll be a phased withdrawal over the next six months and the redistribution of some of the existing troops around some areas," he said.

The spokesperson said most of the 5,000 peacekeepers remaining will be sent to areas bordering Indonesian West Timor.

The U.N. peacekeepers arrived in 1999 to stop a wave of violence that erupted after residents voted overwhelmingly for independence from Indonesia. Pro-Indonesian militias sacked the territory following the referendum and fled across the border. There have been numerous skirmishes along the border since then.

Lieutenant Wescombe says U.N. officials believe that since national elections last August and the beginning of a reconciliation process, the chance of renewed attacks has fallen. "The force commander is pretty confident, as are the East Timor people, that peace has come to stay," he said. "And it would be hoped that the final withdrawal of all U.N. troops would take place by the year 2004, if not sooner."

U.N. forces have trained 600 members of an East Timorese defense force and 200 members of a new police force. They acknowledge the process of developing East Timor's security forces has been slower than expected but they say progress has been made.

U.N. officials say that the team of U.N. civilian workers that has been rebuilding and administering East Timor has been cut by one third in the past three months. The staff is to be reduced to 100 advisors by independence next year.

The president of the constituent assembly that was elected last August, Francisco Guterrez, told reporters Thursday that work on a constitution for the new nation is on schedule and due to be completed next month.

Presidential elections are to be held early next year with full independence scheduled for May 20.