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Bosnian Police Working in E. Timor

May 29, 2000

DILI, East Timor (AP) _ Five years ago, international peacekeepers had to intervene in Bosnia-Herzegovina to enforce the truce that ended a bitter war among its three main ethnic communities.

Today, an ethnically mixed police contingent from that Balkans state is far from home helping keep the peace in East Timor as the new nation recovers from the bloodshed and destruction of its break from Indonesia.

Policing the aftermath of a war is a rare task for most officers. For the Bosnians who arrived in April, it’s an all too familiar routine.

``Unfortunately, we Bosnians have a lot of experience with the same kind of problems facing East Timor,″ said Sgt. Samir Muslic, a Slavic Muslim, his shaved head glistening in the tropical sun as he walks a beat amid the ruins of Dili, East Timor’s capital. ``We know how these conflicts start and how to work to resolve them.″

Bosnia has made some progress toward rebuilding a unified society, but its Muslims, Serbs and Croats remain deeply divided and reconciliation efforts still face strong resistance from ethnic extremists. About 24,000 peacekeepers remain in Bosnia enforcing the accord that ended the 1992-94 war, which killed 250,000 people.

``When I was told that Bosnia was prepared to contribute policemen, I was truly elated because it was the first such opportunity to see Bosnians from different backgrounds participating in a U.N. operation after having themselves benefited by what the U.N. did in Bosnia,″ said Sergio Vieira de Mello, the world body’s chief representative in East Timor.

The half-island state was devastated last year when pro-Indonesian militias went on a rampage after the territory’s people voted for independence.

Hundreds were killed and 250,000 fled their homes to seek refuge in other parts of Indonesia. Whole towns and villages were reduced to rubble. Families suffered the horror of rape and murder of loved ones.

Peace was restored with the arrival of an Australian-led multinational military force. Eight months later, 8,300 U.N. soldiers still are stationed here to make sure the violence does not re-ignite.

The United Nations is administering the territory while it builds up a government structure, including a new police force.

In the interim, 1,200 police officers from 37 nations are scattered across the mountainous territory, settling property disputes and protecting returning refugees as well as pro-Indonesian sympathizers.

Their duties also include mundane police work such as dealing with drunken teen-agers on Saturday nights and enforcing newly introduced traffic regulations.

Life on the tropical island is not exactly paradise for the dozen Bosnian officers. Living accommodations are spartan and the heat is unrelenting. They all miss Bosnian food.

``East Timor is a dangerous place _ not because of guns, though, but because of mosquitoes,″ Muslic said, referring to the malaria and other mosquito-borne diseases already plaguing the peacekeepers and U.N. staff.

Still, the 12 men have built strong bonds and feel united in their mission.

``Now that we’ve gotten to know each other, we’ve come to trust each other,″ said Mirko Luzic, a Serb. ``The problems in our homeland are now mainly between politicians.″

In a telephone interview from his office in Sarajevo, Douglas Coffman, a spokesman for the U.N. mission in Bosnia, said that when the police unit was first assembled for training, officers from different ethnic groups sat in separate parts of the classroom. Within a few days, however, they were all mixed up, laughing and joking, he said.

``The message for the local people in East Timor is that former enemies can work together, even keep the peace somewhere else,″ Coffman said.

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