Timor-Leste Prime Minister, Taur Matan Ruak (center), former INTERFET commander, general Peter Cosgrove (2nd left) and other officials attend the commemoration event in Dili on Sept. 20. (Photo by Thomas Ora/ucanews.com)
The people of Timor-Leste owe a debt of thanks to an Australian-led peacekeeping force that played a significant role 20 years ago in combating chaos resulting from post-independence referendum violence, according to the country’s president.
President Francisco 'Lu-Olo' Guterres was speaking at a commemoration event on Sept. 20 marking the 20th anniversary of the force’s arrival in the fledgling country in 1999.
The International Force East Timor or INTERFRET was an 11,500-strong multinational force organized and led by Australia to address a humanitarian and security crisis in Timor-Leste from 1999–2000 until the arrival of U.N. peacekeepers.
The crisis followed an outbreak of deadly violence instigated by a pro-Indonesian militia after the country voted for independence from Indonesia.
Many people were killed, while over 250,000 others were forced to flee to West Timor, in neighboring Indonesia.
The Australian-led force arrived in Timor-Leste on Sept. 20, 1999, to restore peace and security, to protect and support United Nations missions there and facilitate humanitarian assistance.
“It was a peacekeeping force that made sure people survived during the transition period,” President Guterres told those gathered for the event in Dili, and who included INTERFRET veterans.
He said the task force was instrumental in restoring peace in Timor-Leste.
“They will always be remembered, as their presence was very much needed, amidst the terror waged by the pro-Indonesia militia,” Lu-Olo said.
Australian soldiers escort refugees moving from the port of Dili to the sports stadium, which U.N. peacekeepers established as a safe haven, Sept. 29, 1999. U.N. peacekeepers were protecting East Timorese from violent pro-Indonesia militia. (Photo by Jon Hargest/AFP)
President Guterres said INTERFET, along with the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) paved the way for world recognition of the new country in May 2002.
Father Francisco dos Santos Fatima Barreto, who was a director of Dili Caritas when INTERFET came, said the task force moved quickly to try and protect the Timorese people from the militiamen.
"Before INTERFET arrived, I was working with Caritas distributing rice to refugees," he said.
"We were afraid but we risked our lives to get rice in storage in Dili because the militias were controlling the city," Father Barreto said.
"I saw militiamen slaughter people like animals," he said.
When the peacekeeping troops arrived, things changed quickly with assistance being distributed quickly, as well as people who fled the violence being able to return to their homes.
The force’s commander Australian general Peter Cosgrove told the anniversary gathering he was proud of the progress Timor-Leste had made since.
“Twenty years ago, Dili was flattened by fire, leaving only debris. But now, many new infrastructures have emerged,” said Cosgrove.
During the commemoration event, wreaths were laid at the memorial for five South Korean members of the task force killed during the peacekeeping mission.
Timor-Leste military commander Maj. Gen. Lere Anan Timor said the presence of INTERFET soldiers was a blessing for Timorese people striving to end 24-years of Indonesian occupation.
“Their intervention saved many Timorese lives. Without their help, more people would have been killed,” he said.