Portugal withdrew most of its police officers from East Timor yesterday 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 United Nations peacekeepers to return home before the official end of their mission on December 31.
Only about 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 last week saying it was sending home hundreds of troops from the Australian-led International Stabilisation Force, ending a six-year operation.
At the UN's terminal in Dili's 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 when violence broke out in 1999 after 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 about 183,000 people, a quarter of the population, died from fighting, disease and starvation.
East Timor conducted peaceful presidential and parliamentary elections this year, and UN peacekeepers last month handed full responsibility for policing back to the nation.