The U.S. flag came down for the last time Tuesday, the latest turning point in the U.S. military’s involvement in East Timor.

Responsibilities will be turned over to a U.S. Pacific Command representative at the U.S. Embassy in Dili, the capital. Humanitarian aid will continue, but troop presence, specifically the U.S. Support Group East Timor, has ended.

“My hopes for [people in] East Timor are that they will continue to enjoy their newfound freedom and peace for a long while to come,” said Marine Col. Paul Maubert, commander of USGET. “I hope they will continue on the path of democracy they have chosen. There will be serious trials for them on that path but, based on what I have seen of the people and their elected leadership, they can stay the course.”

U.S. forces landed in Dili in 1999, as part of a U.N.-mandated International Force for East Timor to quell violence after its people demanded independence from Indonesia. The mission was unlike most other international military roles in that U.S. forces didn’t take the lead role; instead they lent support to Australia.

That mission eventually was turned over to the United Nations and USGET was established. U.S. forces weren’t part of the U.N. contingent but they continued to coordinate humanitarian aid to the island nation.

“Materially this country is much better off than it was after the militias burned it out in 1999,” Maubert said. “Much has been repaired. Of course, it is not as materially well off as it was before the destruction of 1999 yet, and won’t be for a while.”

The U.S. military helped build 80 schoolhouses and clinics. Fifty separate engineering projects were completed and tens of thousands of people received medical treatment. The U.S. presence there, though, was more than physical contributions. It underscored America’s commitment to democracy, he said.

“We have established a great degree of friendship between the East Timorese people and those of the United States,” Maubert said. “When I travel in the countryside, the children smile and wave when they see the flag on my shoulder and shout, ‘America!, America!’ The adults are a bit more restrained but no less grateful for our presence. It is obvious that the many thousands of U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who have visited here over the last three years have done a lot of good.”

East Timor conditions today stand in stark contrast to the mission’s beginning days, when rebels marauded in the cities and the countryside, said Marine Maj. Gen. John G. Castellaw, commander of U.S. Forces, International Forces East Timor or INTERFET. Castellaw serves as commanding general, 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C.

“Dili was still burning and the city was being looted when we landed at the airport,” Castellaw said in a phone interview from his home. “The people had fled to the mountains. We came in in chaos and disorder and created conditions for a new nation to be born.”

Castellaw credited the early success to Australian Maj. Gen. Peter Cosgrove, INTERFET’s commander, but added that U.S. participation in the mission, although largely logistical and supportive, was crucial to its success. Castellaw said he attended a press conference in Australia with Cosgrove before landing in East Timor, where the USS Belleau Wood and the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit were docked. The large gray ships, loaded with Marine helicopters and light armored vehicles, provided the backdrop for news cameras.

“What a dramatic scene,” Castellaw said. “The Navy and Marines have always been a symbol of the might of America and it sent a strong symbol of U.S. resolve.”

Castellaw got to see firsthand the improvements made in East Timor since 1999. As a guest of President Bush, he attended last summer’s formal ceremonies in Dili at which East Timor swore in its first democratically elected government.

“I landed at the same airport as in 1999,” Castellaw said. “This time, people were lined up at the airport. There were smiles on their faces and hopes for a new nation. I took a lot of satisfaction from being there.

“That doesn’t mean it’ll be an easy road,” he said. Growing pains of a new nation were felt only weeks ago when riots broke out in Dili. Two people were killed and a dozen injured as rioters burned and attacked foreign-owned businesses. East Timor President Xanana Gusmao denounced the violence, and East Timor government officials said that although the riots were a setback to the world’s newest nation, some unrest was expected.

Maubert holds out for hope in East Timor. He said despite the violence and the overwhelming 80 percent unemployment rate and years of war, East Timor shows promise. The United Nations maintains about 2,000 military and civilian personnel and an additional 1,000 East Timor staffers in Dili. That mission, too, is finite. The United Nations is scheduled to end its mission in June 2004.

“I think for the great majority of Timorese, the recent example of the riots has only underscored that they do not want a return to the destructiveness of 1999,” Maubert said. “I have seen the success of this mission in the eyes of thousands of Timorese people. If the rest of the world is increasingly unstable … well that offers the possibility of great crisis and suffering, but out of that instability could also come some very needed changes.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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