By Joanne Collins
BAUCAU, East Timor (Reuters) - A U.N. peacekeeping operation in wrecked East Timor formally got underway on Tuesday as international troops swapped hats in a symbolic ceremony.
Some 210 Thai, Korean and Filipino troops exchanged military caps for the blue berets worn by U.N. peacekeepers around the world. The ceremony took place at an airbase in the second city Baucau, east of the capital Dili.
They were also presented with U.N. brassards, an arm band, as they formally transferred from the international force known as INTERFET that was sent in to stop mass violence in September after an August 30 vote for independence.
East Timorese voted overwhelmingly in that ballot to end a near quarter century of often brutal rule by Jakarta.
''Okay troops of the eastern sector, change to blue berets,'' was the first command of peacekeeping force chief, Lieutenant-General Jaime Delos Santos.
About 2,100 troops will make the transition this week to join what will grow to an 8,900-strong operation by the end of February.
''This afternoon I am accepting full responsibility of all the troops of the eastern sector,'' said Delos Santos.
''Although we have laid the foundation, it is not a time to relax because there are still a lot of responsibilities for us to perform,'' the Filipino commander said.
Chief Offers Praise
In an earlier ceremony at Baucau, INTERFET chief Major-General Peter Cosgrove addressed 450 Thai troops for the last time as their commander, commending their efforts in securing the region when they arrived in late September to scenes of destruction and violence which followed the August 30 ballot.
''You came here to perform a critical task more than 136 days ago responding to an emergency situation which shocked and energized the world,'' Cosgrove said.
''For four long and arduous months you have toiled within this shattered country, frequently in harm's way, shielding and uplifting its people.''
The Australian-led INTERFET force, which arrived in Dili on September 20 to secure the territory, grew in strength to around 11,500 troops.
Security -- especially in the isolated enclave of Oecussi where anti-independence militia have been accused of exploiting INTERFET's imminent departure -- has been a key concern amid the transition but Delos Santos said security would be only one priority among many.
''We shall perform other tasks that are non-military in nature,'' he said. ''It may involve humanitarian activities as well as developmental activities.''
Jordanian Troops Stir Fears
Later speaking to reporters, Delos Santos re-affirmed the U.N.'s choice of Jordanian troops for the enclave, which is surrounded by Indonesian West Timor.
''I don't think the apprehension is well founded,'' he said. ''I see the Jordanian troops as very professional, very committed and they were the only unit that accepted deployment in the Oecussi area.''
Some East Timorese leaders fear lack of impartiality by the Jordanians because of the country's links to Indonesia's General Prabowo Subianto, son-in-law of former Indonesian president Suharto and former head of its Kopassus special forces. Prabowo is now based in Jordan.
Between 600 and 800 Jordanians will be deployed in the enclave.
About 23 nations will contribute to the U.N. peacekeeping force, 80 percent of whom are transferring from INTERFET.
A contingent of 200 Portuguese will arrive in East Timor on Thursday -- the first arrival of peacekeeping troops who did not serve under INTERFET.
Portugal is East Timor's formal colonial master.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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