East Timor peacekeeping mission to conclude

Australian Army soldiers on patrol in Timor Leste.

Many Australian soldiers serving during the past 13 years have deployed on one of several missions to bring peace and stability to East Timor.

Australian Army soldier in Timor Leste

As the Australian-led International Stabilisation Force consolidates its withdrawal from East Timor, many will remember the peacekeeping operations over the past 13 years to restore the island nation’s confidence, peace and security.

Australia’s 1999 East Timor peace enforcement operation dwarfed previous peacekeeping efforts as the new nation achieved independence from Indonesia. The former Portuguese colony was occupied by Indonesia from 1975. In 1999, after 25 years of Indonesian rule, Indonesia agreed to a United Nations sponsored referendum for independence, shortly after Indonesia’s first democratic elections.

The United Nations Mission in East Timor (UNAMET) was established to organise and conduct the vote at the end of August 1999, which resulted in an overwhelming vote in favour of independence.

In the lead up to the election and once the result was declared, pro-Indonesian militias launched a campaign of violence, looting and arson throughout the country.

Many East Timorese were killed and almost half a million were displaced from their homes. As the violence remained uncontrolled, Indonesia agreed to the deployment of a multinational peacekeeping force.

A United Nations Security Council resolution authorised the International Force in East Timor (INTERFET).

INTERFET, with the role of restoring peace and security, protecting and supporting UNAMET, and facilitating humanitarian assistance operations, began arriving on September 20, 1999. This was Australia’s largest military deployment since the Vietnam War and was the first time Australia was a central participant in forming and leading an international coalition force.

At the peak of INTERFET, the coalition of 23 troop-contributing countries provided more than 11,000 personnel.

Then Major General Peter Cosgrove was the force commander of INTERFET in what was a politically and militarily tense atmosphere. The first five aircraft to land in Dili carried Special Forces and the lead elements of the 3rd Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (3 RAR), who secured the airport along with British forces and established contact with the Indonesian military. The main 3 RAR Group included soldiers from 108 Field Battery and B Squadron and the 3rd /4th Cavalry Regiment, who left Darwin on HMAS Jervis Bay and HMAS Tobruk.

In preparation for the naval elements, troops from the 2nd Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (2 RAR) deployed by air and secured the port at Dili.

In all, 33 sorties by C-130 Hercules from Australia, the United States, United Kingdom and New Zealand deployed 1500 troops in the first 24 hours. By the second day almost 3000 troops were in country.

The intensity of military operations in East Timor continued and after the 30-day mark, Major General Cosgrove said nearly 80 per cent of the country was returned to a state of peace and stability, which allowed most East Timorese to get on with their lives.

INTERFET completed its tasks on 23 February 2000, with a formal transfer of military command and control responsibility to the Headquarters of the UN Peacekeeping Force, part of UNTAET.

Australian Army soldier in Timor Leste

Australia continued to support the UN peacekeeping operation with between 1500 and 2000 personnel, landing craft and Black Hawks and remained the largest contributor of personnel to the peacekeeping mission.

With the transfer of military command and control responsibility to Headquarters UN Peacekeeping Force, Australia’s military presence in East Timor transitioned to become a national component of the UN force.

The size of Australia’s military deployment fell from a peak of 5700 at the end of November 1999 to approximately 1600 in 2001-2002. Australian troops were gradually drawn down over several years after 2000, however major rioting in Dili in May 2006 prompted more Australian Defence Force members to be deployed to East Timor as part of Operation ASTUTE.

Operation ASTUTE was the Australian-led military deployment to East Timor to quell the unrest and return stability during the 2006 crisis. The operation was established at the request of East Timor’s Government, and continued under an understanding reached between Australia, East Timor, and the United Nations, with the United Nations Integrated Mission in East Timor supporting and helping to develop East Timor’s police force.

The initial Australian units deployed as part of the operation fell under the operational command of then Brigadier Mick Slater, Commander 3rd Brigade.

The 3 RAR force was replaced in early September 2006 by a battalion group based on the 6th Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (6 RAR), which was designated the Anzac Battle Group, a name that would continue throughout the operation.

Troops have been gradually withdrawn from East Timor since 2006, with reservists taking over many of the Australian Regular Army roles.

The road to independence

• December 1975 Indonesian occupation of East Timor begins.
• July 1976 Indonesia makes East Timor its 27th province after a campaign of guerrilla warfare.
• May 1999 Indonesia agrees to referendum on East Timorese autonomy.
• June 1999 The UN Assistance Mission in East Timor (UNAMET) is established to conduct the referendum.
• June 19 to September 15, 1999 Operation FABER.
Military Liaison Officers (MLO) deploy under UN Advance Mission in East Timor (UNAMET) in support of the UNAMET-monitored popular consultation.
• September 6-19, 1999 Operation SPITFIRE.
Special operations in the lead up to the Interfet intervention manage the evacuation of 2475 Australian and other nominated nationals from East Timor.
• September 16, 1999, to February 23, 2000 Operation STABILISE. The Australian Defence Force operations in East Timor as part of Interfet.
• September 16, 1999, to April 10, 2000 Operation WARDEN. The broader Australian Defence Force involvement in the 1999 East Timor deployment, including logistic support from the Australian support area.
• February 20, 2000, to May19, 2002 Operation TANAGER. The provision of Australian forces in support of the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET), with about 1600 Australian Defence Force personnel, until independence in May 2002.
• May 2002, to May 2004 Operation CITADEL. The post-independence deployment of Australian combat battalion groups (Ausbatt) to support the UN Mission of Support in East Timor (UNMISET) Peacekeeping Force.
• May 20, 2004, to June 25, 2005 Operation SPIRE. The Australian Defence Force provides about 100 personnel to the UN mission in East Timor, undertaking a range of roles to support the UN, mainly performing specialist logistics, engineering and military liaison tasks.
• May 20, 2005, to May 11, 2006 Operation CHIRON. Australia’s contribution to the UN Office in East Timor continues the work of Operation Spire. Australia’s contribution to Operation Chiron included four military advisers who provided a liaison and monitoring function in support of the mission.
• May 25, 2006, to present Operation ASTUTE. The Australian-led International Stabilisation Force (ISF) ceased security operations on November 22, 2012. 

To read more about Our stories in East Timor click here.

Originally published in Army News edition 1296