UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The United Nations intends to field its own peacekeeping force for East Timor in February, one district at a time, a senior U.N. official said on Wednesday.
Hedi Annabi, an assistant secretary-general for peacekeeping, told the 15-member Security Council and reporters that more than 8,000 soldiers would be put under U.N. command ''between the beginning and end of February.''
He said he expected few difficulties because of the military structure established by the Australian-led 11,000 member international force, known as Interfet, that went to East Timor in September to quell violence by armed gangs opposed to independence for the territory.
Many of the Interfet troops will don blue helmets and be under U.N. command, Annabi said. The force is expected to be led by Philippine Maj.-Gen. Jaime de los Santos.
The handover, which had been foreseen during all of January and February, will be condensed into one month and move from east to west with volatile land border to Indonesian-ruled West Timor left for last, Annabi said.
The United Nations is in charge of guiding East Timor, a former Portuguese colony, to independence over the next two to three years following a ballot on August 30 in which 80 percent of the voters rejected autonomy within Indonesia. The civilian and military mission is expected to cost $700 million in 2000.
Some 450,000 people among the territory's population of 800,000 were registered to vote in the poll and the United Nations has the task of discovering where they are. The gangs, supported by Indonesia's army, conducted a killing, looting, burning and forced evacuation operation after the vote.
Since the Jakarta's new government of President Abdurrahman Wahid was sworn in on October 20, the Security Council has downplayed its criticism of Indonesia and its military.
Wahid is scheduled to visit East Timor on January 17 at the invitation of the United Nations.
Several council members said perpetrators of the violence in East Timor had to be held accountable but none followed suggestions from U.N. investigators on Wednesday to set up a U.N. war crimes tribunal. Others said Indonesia still had not moved fast enough in accounting for East Timorese forcibly to flee within two weeks in September.
Annabi said some 120,000 refugees who fled or were driven to West Timor had returned. Some aid groups estimate 100,000 remain. He said those still in East Timor included people opposed to independence or those intimidated by the gangs or those who feared they had no place to live if they returned.
''There has been no increase in the rate of return'' of the refugees recently, Annabi said.
Indonesia Faulted For Missing Timorese
But Netherlands' ambassador Peter van Walsum said the refugee problem could not be reduced to logistics.
''Precisely because the Indonesian government has adopted such a positive attitude, the council should remind it that it continues to be responsible for the safe return of refugees.''
''While we speak in positive terms of developments in East Timor, there are thousands of refugees stuck in camps in West Timor,'' he said.
''Intentional disinformation comes close to intimidation and intimidation comes close to force. We are dealing with an unresolved political problem,'' Van Walsum said.''
Canada's ambassador Robert Fowler agreed and chastised the United Nations for not being able to organize a peacekeeping force sooner that would be paid for by all U.N. members, rather than by troop contributing countries.
Australians, he noted, had to pay a special tax to fund the East Timor operation. ''This is not the way the United Nations was supposed to operate,'' he said.
Secretary-General Kofi Annan was also asked to report on how aid and reconstruction funds would be coordinated among various U.N. agencies, governments and private voluntary groups. A pledging conference in Tokyo earlier this month raised $522 million, more than had been expected.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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