Australian and New Zealand troops deployed to East Timor, a tiny, impoverished country adjacent to Indonesia, patrolled around the clock to ensure peace and quiet for Mondays presidential election.Around 1,100 Australian and 150 New Zealand soldiers work alongside 1,500 U.N. police from more than 20 countries and native security forces to suppress gangs, quell political violence and hunt down a rebel army led by former police officer Major Alfredo Reinado.
East Timor, population 1 million, broke away from Indonesia in 1999 following a brutal 20-year occupation and formally declared independence in 2002. Australian troops entered the territory in 1999 to help suppress pro-Indonesian militias, and again last year when marauding gangs and rebelling security forces threatened to collapse the current government under President Xanana Gusmao.The capital city of Dili has been mostly peaceful in recent weeks, with just a few outbreaks of violence. Gangs in the pay of the major political parties battled in the streets on Thursday, the last day of campaigning, but only a handful of injuries were reported. Australian army Corporal Steven Clacy, 24, attributed the relative calm to the stepped-up peacekeeper presence. Its been quiet the last few weeks because weve been flexing. Clacy said he sleeps only three hours at a time due to his intensive patrolling schedule.The boost to Australian and New Zealand operations included more vehicle patrols, foot patrols and surveillance flights by helicopters, according to Australian army Brigadier Mal Rerden, commander of the peacekeeping force. He added that his troops retained a response capability to deal with any unexpected crises. This type of response can include deployment of a quick-reaction force, the deployment of armored vehicles as well as air support.Australian armored vehicles armed with heavy machine guns idled in downtown Dili on Thursday morning and, later in the day, a quick-reaction force in trucks speeded to a nearby neighborhood to help U.N. cops deal with clashes between young supporters of presidential frontrunners Jose Ramos-Horta, the current prime minister, and Francisco Guterres, whose party is headed by former prime minister Mari Alkatiri, ousted after last years riots. Authorities fired tear gas to disperse the combatants; several motorcycles were set on fire.Dili was quiet for Mondays elections. Timorese gathered in the shade at downtown polling stations, sipping soft drinks bought from street peddlers. Voters emerging from the polls wiped their ink-stained fingers on their pants. Its a good start to the nation-building, Japanese ambassador Hideaki Asahi said while a touring one polling place near the site of Thursdays violence.Stability in Timor is critical to Australian plans for the region. In February Canberra signed agreements with Dili establishing a framework for joint oil exploration in the Sea of Timor. Royalties from Timorese oil are worth an estimated $20 billion to Canberra over several years; Dilis share is somewhat smaller.See my Timor posts at War Is Boring ... and check out my Timor Flickr stream.--David Axe