The Portuguese colony of East Timor was invaded by Indonesia in 1975. After almost a quarter-century of bloodshed in the territory, a new Indonesian government under President Habibie agreed to allow the East Timorese to vote on their future. A UN operation – the United Nations Mission in East Timor (UNAMET) – conducted the vote in August 1999 and resulted in an overwhelming vote in favour of independence.
Tragically, once the result had been announced, pro-Indonesian militias, sometimes with the support of elements of the Indonesian security forces, launched a campaign of violence, looting and arson throughout the entire territory. Many East Timorese were killed, and as many as 500,000 were displaced from their homes, about half leaving the territory, in some cases under threat of violence.
Eventually, as the violence remained uncontrolled, Indonesia agreed to the deployment of a multinational peacekeeping force. Australia, which had contributed police to UNAMET, organized and led the International Force for East Timor (INTERFET), with the role of restoring peace and security and facilitating humanitarian assistance operations. INTERFET commenced on 12 September 1999 with Australia contributing over 5,500 personnel and the force commander, Major General Peter Cosgrove.
On 19 October 1999, Indonesia formally recognised the result of the referendum. The United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) was established as an integrated, multi-dimensional peacekeeping operation, fully responsible for the administration of East Timor during its transition to independence. The hand-over of command of military operations from INTERFET to UNTAET was completed on 28 February 2000.
Australia continued to support the UN peacekeeping operation until December 2012 when the last Australian peacekeeping forces left. Australia remains the largest contributor of personnel to the peacekeeping mission.