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SUVA, Fiji Islands (January 10, 2000 – Fiji Times)---Army Commander Frank Bainimarama yesterday urged soldiers leaving for peacekeeping duties in East Timor to uphold the reputation of Fijians who have served in the army.

Reiterating what President Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara said in Suva last week, Commodore Bainimarama reminded the soldiers of the hard work put in by those who had already served in the Fiji Military Forces.

A total of 185 soldiers, which included eight officers, left aboard an Air Pacific flight to Sydney yesterday morning.

From there they will travel to Darwin before flying to Dili.

Families of the departing soldiers traveled from all over Fiji to be with the men at the Namaka army base in Nadi.

Commodore Bainimarama told the men their task in East Timor was a challenging one and was not easy.

"You have prepared accordingly, and thank you for the effort you have put in during the preparation for this tour,'' he said.

He also thanked the Australian Government for its assistance, as Fiji would come under Australia in INTERFET.

Commodore Bainimarama told the soldiers they would be there for six months before the next change in June, when United Nations peacekeeping forces will take over from INTERFET.

Lieutenant Colonel Viliame Seruvakula said the troops would uplift military hardware from Darwin before moving on to Dili.

"From Dili the contingent will move to Suai, where they would be based with troops from Ireland, New Zealand and France,'' he said.

Lt. Col. Seruvakula said the French troops have already left Suai and the remaining three countries will make up the New Zealand Battalion.

The officer commanding the contingent, Major Kepa Buadromo, said the troops had trained for the past four months and the group was one the best prepared contingents to leave Fiji for an overseas mission.

"It is nothing different from Sinai or Lebanon,'' he said.

Major Buadromo said the advance party, which left in December, had made the trip much smoother for the contingent.

He said there was a skirmish between New Zealand soldiers and some locals in Suai a couple of weeks ago, but he did not elaborate on it.

"The situation is not as volatile as it appears,'' he said.

The advance party left under the command of Commander Timoci Lesikivatukoula.

Meanwhile, the Australian Defense Force yesterday denied a specialist team had been dispatched to East Timor to curb the growing number of illegal weapons discharges by Australian peacekeeping troops.

News reports yesterday said weapons experts had been rushed to East Timor after more than 65 instances of unauthorized firings by INTERFET troops.

The problems were reportedly related to cutbacks in the length of basic infantry training from 10 to six weeks and budget cuts which reduced the practice time for troops with the standard-issue 5.56 mm Steyr assault rifle.

For additional reports from the Fiji Times, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/Fiji Times.

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