20 September 2019
A New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) contingent participated today in the 20th anniversary commemorations of the International Force East Timor (INTERFET) mission in Dili.
The commemoration at Dili’s Palacio de Governo featured speeches by Republic of Timor-Leste President Francisco Guterres Lú Olo and the Australian former Commander INTERFET General (retired) Sir Peter Cosgrove.
Following a Timorese youth reading, President Guterres and General Cosgrove unveiled the INTERFET commemorative plaque and laid a wreath.
Former New Zealand Senior Officer and Deputy Commander INTERFET Major-General (retired) Martyn Dunne laid a wreath in memory of the sacrifices of all INTERFET soldiers and Minister of Defence and Minister for Veterans Ron Mark laid a wreath with Royal New Zealand Navy (RNZN) Chief of Navy Rear-Admiral David Proctor on behalf of New Zealand and the NZDF.
Rear-Admiral Proctor, who led the NZDF contingent, said the commemoration was a fantastic opportunity for NZDF veterans to return to their theatre of operation alongside Australian, Timorese and other nations’ veterans to mark the occasion.
“It was also wonderful to see Timorese youth involved in the commemoration,” Rear-Admiral Proctor said. “Their future was the reason we were here in 1999. Seeing them today in a stable and prosperous East Timor is all we could hope for.”
The NZDF contingent also included former commanding officer of RNZN ship HMNZS Te Kaha Commodore (retired) Ross Smith, former commanding officer of the New Zealand Army 1st Battalion Colonel (retired) Kevin Burnett, and former commanding officer of Royal New Zealand Air Force No.3 Squadron Wing Commander (retired) Russell Pirihi.
Twenty-one NZDF personnel who served in INTERFET, the United Nations Mission in East Timor (UNAMET) and the United Nations Transitional Authority East Timor (UNTAET) also attended the ceremony and paraded through Dili’s streets at its conclusion.
The commemorations, hosted by the East Timorese Government, marked the deployment of the multi-national force to stabilise East Timor and to control its borders after violence erupted following the announcement of the 30 August referendum on independence from Indonesia.
From 1999 to 2002 New Zealand deployed 5,000 NZDF personnel to INTERFET and then to UNTAET, making it the largest single deployment of New Zealand military personnel since the Korean War.
The NZDF remains committed to East Timor’s security and stability and maintains a strong partnership through the NZDF’s Mutual Assistance Programme, which provides training assistance to the Timor-Leste Defence Force.
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The International Force East (INTERFET) was an Australian-led force deployed to East Timor in September 1999 to stabilise the country and to control its borders. The NZDF’s main contribution was to provide border security in the New Zealand sector, helicopter support to the force, staff officers to two United Nations Headquarters and training support to the East Timor Defence Force.
The Royal New Zealand Navy began work in East Timor on 14 September, 1999. HMNZS Te Kaha joined ships from other countries patrolling off the coast of Dili, while HMNZS Canterbury and HMNZS Endeavour also provided support to the operation. No. 40 Squadron provided airlift support from Darwin and No. 3 Squadron, based in Dili and later Suai, deployed up to six Iroquois helicopters.
More than 1,000 NZDF personnel were deployed as part of INTERFET, including an infantry battalion and support elements, a frigate crew and a helicopter squadron. By 28 February, 2000, INTERFET had transferred security responsibility to a new UN mission – the United Nations Assistance Mission in East Timor (UNTAET). New Zealand continued to support the new mission with deployments from the three Services, including four battalion rotations, a No. 3 Squadron detachment and support personnel.
With independence in May 2002, the United Nations Mission of Support in East Timor (UNMISET) was established to provide security, while also developing a law enforcement agency. It was also directed to help core administrative structures critical to political stability in the region.
The last New Zealand Battalion Group, support elements and No. 3 Squadron detachment returned to New Zealand in November 2002, with three personnel remaining as military observers and one as a military assistant. New Zealand also contributed a 22-strong Small Arms Training Team to help the developing Portuguese-sponsored Falantil Force Defence Timor Leste (F-FDTL).
Five New Zealand soldiers died in Timor-Leste during this deployment. Nepalese, Fijian and Irish units attached to the New Zealand battalion also suffered one fatality each.