International Force for East Timor

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International Force for East Timor
Part of the Indonesian invasion of East Timor and the Fall of Suharto
INTERFET 12 Feb 2000.jpg
Australian members of International Forces East Timor (INTERFET), talk to a citizen in Dili, East Timor in February 2000.
Date 20 September 1999 – 28 February 2000
Location East Timor
Status Conflict Ended
  • Defeat of pro-Indonesian militia
  • Stabilisation of East Timor
International Force:
  • Australia Australia – 5,500
  • United States United States - 4,543
  • New Zealand New Zealand – 1,100
  • Bangladesh Bangladesh 
  • Brazil Brazil 
  • Canada Canada 
  • France France 
  • Germany Germany 
  • Republic of Ireland Republic of Ireland 
  • Italy Italy 
  • Kenya Kenya 
  • Malaysia Malaysia 
  • Norway Norway 
  • Philippines Philippines 
  • Portugal Portugal 
  • Singapore Singapore 
  • South Korea South Korea 
  • Thailand Thailand 
  • United Kingdom United Kingdom 
  • Indonesia Pro-Indonesian Militias
Commanders and leaders
Australia John Howard
Australia Peter Cosgrove
New Zealand Jenny Shipley
New Zealand Helen Clark
New Zealand Carey Adamson
Indonesia Wiranto?
Indonesia Eurico Guterres?

The International Force for East Timor (INTERFET) was a multinational non-United Nations peacekeeping taskforce, organized and led by Australia in accordance with United Nations resolutions to address the humanitarian and security crisis which took place in East Timor from 1999–2000 until the arrival of UN peacekeepers.[1] INTERFET was commanded by an Australian, Major General Peter Cosgrove.


Indonesia invaded East Timor in 1975 and annexed the former Portuguese colony. The annexation was recognised by few nations (including Australia at that time) and was resisted by many East Timorese. Foreign powers placed high importance on good relations with Indonesia and were largely reluctant to assist a push for independence. Following the fall of long-serving Indonesian President Suharto the new President, B. J. Habibie, was prepared to grant special autonomy for East Timor.[2]

In late 1998, the Australian Prime Minister John Howard with his Foreign Minister Alexander Downer drafted a letter to Habibie supporting the idea of autonomy but incorporating a suggestion that the long term issue of East Timorese self-determination could best be diffused by providing the East Timorese with an opportunity for a plebiscite after a long period of autonomy. The explicit comparison was with the Matignon Accords involving France and New Caledonia.[3] The letter upset Habibie, who saw it as implying Indonesia was a "colonial power" and he decided in response to announce a snap referendum to be conducted within six months.[2]

News of the proposal provoked a violent reaction in East Timor from pro-Indonesian militia. The Indonesian army did not intervene to restore order. At a summit in Bali John Howard told Habibie that a United Nations Peace Keeping force should oversee the process. Habibie rejected the proposal, believing it would have insulted the Indonesian military.[2]

East Timor Special Autonomy Referendum[edit]

The United Nations Mission in East Timor (UNAMET) was established to organize and conduct a referendum on the question of independence. It was composed of police and observers rather than military personnel. The UN-sponsored referendum held on 30 August 1999 showed overwhelming approval for East Timorese independence from Indonesia. After the result was announced on 4 September, violent clashes, instigated by a suspected anti-independence militia, sparked a humanitarian and security crisis in the region, with Xanana Gusmão calling for a UN peacekeeping force the same day.[4] Many East Timorese were killed, with as many as 500,000 displaced and around half fleeing the territory.[1]

United Nations resolution[edit]

The violence was met with widespread public anger in Australia, Portugal and elsewhere and activists in Portugal, Australia, the United States and other nations pressured their governments to take action. Australia's Opposition Spokesman on Foreign Affairs, Laurie Brereton, was vocal in highlighting evidence of the Indonesian military's involvement in pro-integrationist violence and advocated United Nations peacekeeping to support the East Timor's ballot. The Catholic Church in Australia urged the Australian Government to send an armed peacekeeping force to East Timor to end the violence.[5] Street protesters harried the Indonesian Embassy.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard gained the support of United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan and U. S. President Bill Clinton for an Australian led international peace keeper force to enter East Timor to end the violence. The United States offered crucial logistical and intelligence resources and an "over-horizon" deterrent presence, but did not commit forces to the operation. Finally, on 11 September, Bill Clinton announced:[2]

Return of Xanana Gusmão from Indonesian prison (1999).

Indonesia, in dire economic straits relented. Under international pressure to allow an international peacekeeping force, Indonesian president BJ Habibie announced on 12 September that he would do so.[6] He told a press conference:[2]

On 15 September 1999, the United Nations Security Council expressed concern at the deteriorating situation in East Timor and issued United Nations Security Council Resolution 1264 calling for a multinational force to restore peace and security to East Timor, to protect and support the United Nations mission there, and to facilitate humanitarian assistance operations until such time as a United Nations peacekeeping force could be approved and deployed in the area.[7] The resolution also welcomes Australia's letter to accept the leadership of a proposed multinational force in East Timor and to make a substantial contribution to the force itself.[8]

Operation Warden[edit]

USAF C-130 taking off from Darwin for a mission to East Timor

The International Forces East Timor (INTERFET) coalition began deploying to East Timor on 20 September 1999, as a non-UN force operating in accordance with UN Resolutions. Led by Australia, who contributed 5,500 personnel and the force commander, Major General Peter Cosgrove, it was tasked with restoring peace and security, protecting and supporting UNAMET, and facilitating humanitarian assistance.[1]

Of the 22 nations involved in INTERFET, 10 provided naval assets.[9] Australia was the single largest provider, with 14 ships deployed with INTERFET between 19 September 1999 and 23 February 2000: the frigates Adelaide, Anzac, Darwin, Sydney, Newcastle, and Melbourne; the landing ship Tobruk, the landing craft Balikpapan, Brunei, Labuan, Tarakan, and Betano; the fast transport HMAS Jervis Bay; and the replenishment vessel Success.[9] The United States contributed seven ships: the cruiser Mobile Bay; the amphibious assault ships Belleau Wood, Peleliu, and Juneau; and the replenishment ships Kilauea, San Jose, and Tippecanoe.[9] France supplied four vessels: the frigates Vendémiaire and French frigate Prairial; plus the landing ships French ship Siroco and Jacques Cartier.[9] Singapore contributed the amphibious landing ships Excellence, Intrepid, and Perseverance.[9] New Zealand deployed the frigates Te Kaha and Canterbury and the replenishment ship Endeavour.[9] Other naval vessels deployed during the operation included the Canadian replenishment ship Protecteur, the Italian amphibious assault ship San Giusto, the Portuguese frigate Vasco da Gama, the Thai landing ship Surin, and the British destroyer Glasgow.[9]

The lead up to the operation remained politically and militarily tense. The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) re-deployed frontline combat aircraft—F/A-18s and F-111s—northward to Tindal in the Northern Territory to act as a deterrent against escalation of the conflict by the Indonesian military and provide close air support and air defence in support of the landing if required. P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft were also deployed.[10] At peak strength the RAAF aerial support assets available to INTERFET included 10 F-111s, 12 F/A-18s, five P-3C Orions, three B707 aerial refueling tankers, two B200 King Airs, three PC-9A forward control aircraft, and a Falcon F900 VIP jet.[11] Also in support was a significant airlift group, with Australian transport aircraft including thirteen C-130 Hercules and three DHC-4 Caribou, in addition to a number of New Zealand, British, United States, Canadian, French and Thai aircraft.[12][13] On at least one occasion Australian P-3C aircraft were intercepted by Indonesian aircraft,[14] while an Indonesian submarine was also detected by Coalition surveillance within the vicinity of Dili Harbour as INTERFET forces approached.[2] Ultimately though no serious incidents occurred and the intervention was successful; however, Australia–Indonesia relations would take several years to recover.[2]

HMAS Jervis Bay in Dili in October 1999

Most UNAMET (United Nations Mission in East Timor) personnel, as well as Indonesian military, police and administrators had already been evacuated from the region in the preceding months by the Royal Australian Air Force and other allied air forces, including the Royal New Zealand Air Force.

While deployed to the Timor Sea, USS Mobile Bay took on many roles to include: lily pad operations for Australian Black Hawk helicopters, escort operations, Dili guardship operations, air and surface surveillance and sanctuary for U.S. Air Force Intelligence personnel." (Mobile Bay Command History 1999)

With the withdrawal of the Indonesian forces and officials, UNAMET re-established its headquarters in Dili on 28 September and on 19 October 1999, Indonesia formally recognised the result of the independence referendum. Soon after, the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) was established as a peacekeeping operation which was also fully responsible for the administration of East Timor to oversee its transition to independence.[1]

The arrival of thousands of international troops in East Timor caused the militia to flee across the border into Indonesia. Sporadic cross-border raids by the militia against INTERFET forces, particularly in the southern border held by the New Zealand Army, led to suspicion that the militia had the tacit support of the Indonesian military. Such suspicion increased following a major contact at Aidabasalala, 15 kilometres (9.3 mi) from the West Timor border, on 16 October 1999. The action, involving an Australian covert reconnaissance patrol from the Special Air Service Regiment saw the Australians repeatedly attacked in a series of fire-fights by a group of more than 20 militia. The SASR patrol had been detected whilst establishing an observation post and were forced to fight their way to a landing zone, being attacked a further three times over a one-and-a-half hour period, killing a number of their attackers before they were successfully extracted by Black Hawk helicopter. Five militia were killed and three wounded, whilst there were no Australian casualties.[15] Later, intelligence reports speculated on the involvement of Indonesian military personnel in the attempt to cut off and destroy the Australians, whilst conjecture as to the identity of the pro-Indonesian militias and the source of their arms and training increased in the media.[16] On 28 February 2000, INTERFET handed over command of military operations to United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET).

New Zealand Special Forces escorting a port survey team in East Timor

A New Zealand soldier, Private Leonard Manning, was shot dead during a contact on 24 July 2000, becoming the first combat fatality since the United Nations-backed forces had arrived in September.[17] Manning was killed in the south-west town of Suai when his patrol was attacked by a militia.[18] Hand grenades and other weapons had been withdrawn from New Zealand's forces after the UN took over, a change which was rescinded after Manning's death.[19] Two Australian soldiers also died in East Timor in 2000—Corporal Stuart Jones after a weapon accidentally discharged and Lance Corporal Russell Eisenhuth, through illness.[1]

Countries contributing to INTERFET[edit]

Commander INTERFET, Major General Cosgrove, joins hands with the new East Timor leadership during a celebration to mark the official handover from INTERFET to UNTAET.

Australia provided the largest contingent of troops, hardware and equipment for the INTERFET operation–5,500 personnel at its peak–followed by New Zealand.[20] New Zealand's contribution peaked at 1,100 NZDF personnel, and nearly 4,000 New Zealanders served in East Timor (see Military history of New Zealand). It was New Zealand's largest overseas military deployment since the Korean War.

Eventually 22 nations contributed to INTERFET which grew to over 11,000 strong. Other countries to contribute were (in alphabetical order), Bangladesh, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Jordan, Kenya, Malaysia, Norway, Pakistan, Philippines, Portugal, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, United Kingdom, United States of America.

Most participants were awarded the International Force East Timor Medal by the Australian Government.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e
  2. ^ a b c d e f g "The Howard Years: Episode 2: "Whatever It Takes"". Program Transcript. Australian Broadcasting Commission. 24 November 2008. Archived from the original on 23 September 2010. Retrieved 19 October 2014. 
  3. ^
  4. ^ Timor chooses independence, BBC News, 4-Sep-1999
  5. ^
  6. ^ Habibie accepts Timor peacekeepers, BBC News, 12-Sep-1999
  7. ^ UN approves Timor force, BBC News, 15-Sep-1999
  8. ^ "Security Council authorises multinational force in East Timor". United Nations. 15 September 1999. 
  9. ^ a b c d e f g Stevens, David (2007). Strength Through Diversity: The combined naval role in Operation Stabilise. Working Papers 20. Canberra: Sea Power Centre - Australia. pp. 14–15. ISBN 978-0-642-29676-4. ISSN 1834-7231. Retrieved 23 August 2014. 
  10. ^ Wilson 2003, p. 32.
  11. ^ Wilson 2003, p. 34.
  12. ^ Wilson 2003, pp. 13–15.
  13. ^ "RAAF units in East Timor". East Timor, 1999–2000 units. Australian War Memorial. Retrieved 19 October 2014. 
  14. ^ Wilson 2003, pp. 32–33.
  15. ^ Coulthard-Clark 2001, p. 296.
  16. ^ Farrell 2000, pp. 56–57.
  17. ^ "New Zealand soldier is shot dead in East Timor". The Independent (London). 25 July 2000. 
  18. ^
  19. ^ Manning.pdf
  20. ^ Horner 2001, p. 9.


External links[edit]