Portugal withdrew the bulk of its police officers from East Timor on Saturday as international forces wind up a 13-year mission in Asia’s youngest nation, where thousands have died in political bloodshed.
Seventy-five of the officers boarded a Lisbon-bound plane in the former Portuguese colony, among the last of 1,200 UN peacekeepers to return home before the official end of their mission on December 31.
Only around three dozen UN Police remain in the country, including several from Portugal, Australia, Malaysia and Pakistan. Most of them will leave next week and all will have to withdraw by December 31.
International forces began pulling out in earnest last month with Canberra this week saying it was sending home hundreds of troops from the Australian-led International Stabilisation Force (ISF), ending a six-year operation.
At the UN’s terminal in Dili’s Presidente Nicolau Lobato International Airport, officers in Portugal’s black police uniforms and UN blue berets bade a tearful farewell to Portuguese expatriates who had come to see them off.
Captain Jorge Barradas, commander of the Portuguese police contingent, said he had mixed feelings about leaving a country where he has served on and off since 2001.
“It is kind of a sad feeling for us to leave East Timor. But on the other hand, leaving means that East Timor has developed and is secure so it’s also a pleasure to leave,” he said.
The UN entered the territory, officially known as Timor-Leste, after violence broke out in 1999 following the resounding “yes” vote for independence from neighbouring Indonesia.
The referendum was organised by the UN after Indonesia announced it would end a brutal, 24-year occupation in which around 183,000 people, or a quarter of the population, died from fighting, disease and starvation.
The nation conducted peaceful presidential and parliamentary elections this year, and UN peacekeepers last month handed full responsibility for policing back to the nation, which celebrated a decade of formal independence in May.
Portugal, which controlled East Timor for more than 300 years before Indonesia invaded, is among 44 nations that have served in the current UN Police mission dispatched after a second wave of violence hit in 2006.
It has made one of the biggest contributions to the force, sending 2,000 officers since 2006, when unrest ahead of elections left 37 dead and hundreds of thousands displaced.
The only major violence in the impoverished half-island nation of 1.1 million people since 2006 has been a failed assassination attempt against then-president Jose Ramos-Horta and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao in 2008.