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East Timor celebrates coming of age as UN troops leave

The United Nations has pulled the last of its troops out of Asia’s youngest nation, East Timor. It is a symbolic moment for the former Portuguese colony, which gained its independence from Indonesia 13 years ago.

The UN finally ended its peacekeeping mission in East Timor, with the final soldiers leaving on Monday morning.

Since 1999, some 1,500 peacekeepers have been stationed in the country. Leaders expressed excitement about the historic moment in the history of their nation, despite the challenges posed by widespread poverty and lack of development.

"In the end we have to say goodbye to the UN with... high appreciation for what they have been doing," Deputy Prime Minister Fernando La Sama de Araujo told the AFP news agency.

East Timor faces a number of challenges, with drastic improvements planned for schools, hospitals and other services.

"We're optimistic that in 10 years, coming together with many friends around the world including UN agencies for development, we can overcome these challenges," said de Araujo.

Meanwhile, in a New Year speech, President Taur Matan Ruak welcomed the end of the UN mission, praising the peace and stability now enjoyed by the country's population of just over a million.

The electorate of East Timor, also referred to by its official name Timor-Leste, voted for independence in a UN-organized vote in 1999. The poll was followed by political unrest and bloodshed, and East Timor was under UN administration until 2002, when it became a country in its own right.

East Timor shook off some four centuries of Portuguese rule on November 28, 1975, only to be invaded by Indonesia nine days later.

rc/bk (AFP, AP, dpa)