Portuguese military land in East Timor

Sunday, June 4, 2006

Elemtents of the GNR Sub-Agrupamento Alpha in Iraq, July 2004. Many of the soldiers that arrived today have also served in East Timor on 2002 and in Iraq on 2004

120 soldiers of the Portuguese Republican National Guard (GNR) landed this Sunday morning in Baucau, the second-largest city in East Timor, after their departure to East Timor had been delayed twice due to difficulties in arranging adequate air transportation. The soldiers were received by the Portuguese ambassador to East Timor, local representatives and hundreds of locals.

After the landing of the aircraft that transported the Portuguese soldiers at approximately 7 a.m. local time (2200 Saturday, UTC), hundreds of people started to enter the runway with flags of East Timor and Portugal. In addition to the hundreds of locals that were expecting the GNR soldiers, the Portuguese ambassador, João Ramos Pinto, and other local authorities received the soldiers.

Both the population and the authorities believe that the presence of the GNR troops, many of whom have also served in Iraq, may be essential to allow the inhabitants of Dili to return to their homes.

A Portuguese military column then left at the beginning of the afternoon, from Baucau to Dili, transporting the 120 soldiers and an medical team of Portugal's National Medical Emergency Institute, INEM. Now in Dili, the Portuguese contingent's main objectives will be to provide security in the city and its suburbs, and to train Dili's police force.

The destruction of many public buildings in the last days forced a move of the Portuguese headquarters from a Dili police station to the Dili Hotel 2001, a touristy complex just outside the East Timor's capital. The hotel's gymnasium will be converted to a command post. Some of the other hotel divisions have already a infirmary, set by a INEM team, and a communications center, set by a Portugal Telecom technical team, working.

An Antonov An-124 airplane is expected to leave Lisbon next Tuesday with the rest of equipment for the Portuguese force, mainly vehicles, six vans of public order, five jeeps, three pickup trucks, and six armoured vehicles, like those used in Iraq by the Republican National Guard.

Unlike the troops from New Zealand and Malaysia, who are under the direct command of the Australians, Portugal refused to put its troops under Australian command. This decision was announced by Portugal's Foreign Minister, Diogo Freitas do Amaral, during a news conference in Lisbon this Friday. Freitas do Amaral added that early that day a meeting was held between him, an Australian General, and a second unidentified person.

The Australian mission "was expressly sent from London to Lisbon to ask for clarifications" to a agreement that was signed last Thursday (June 1) in Dili, between Portugal and East Timor, reaffirming that the GNR group has its own operational command.

José Ramos Horta told Lusa News Agency that the soldiers of the GNR "have to start acting with autonomy and hardness" in the entire city, Dili, to reestablish the law and order. The Foreign Minister also told the Agency that he "respects" the decision of the Portuguese government to put the GNR force out of the Australian command of the international force, affirming that is essential to reach an agreement this Monday, so that the Portuguese Republican National Guard "can be operational."

Ramos Horta added that this would be the position that he will defend in a meeting this Thursday morning with the diplomats of Australia, Portugal, New Zealand and Malaysia. This meeting will define the way that the forces of the four countries will work on the country, having the troops of Australia, New Zealand and Malaysia working under a single Australian command, and the Portuguese force working in an "autonomous" way and reporting directly to President Xanana Gusmão.

The East Timorese Minister, guarded by Australian elite soldiers, and travelling in a civilian car, heard complaints about the lack of protection given by the 1.300 Australian soldiers already at the city, while saying "that is obvious that there's a arousing frustration of the population before the apparent impunity with those groups that continue to destroy".

The Portuguese military are in East Timor in response to a request of help made by the East Timor authorities to Australia, Portugal, New Zealand, and Malaysia. This is the second time that the special operations team of the GNR has been to this former Portuguese colony, after being in East Timor between February, 2000 and June, 2002.

  Wikinews Australia has in-depth coverage of this issue: 2006 East Timor crisis