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Australian Peacekeeping Force Comes to East Timor

By David Lamb

An Australian-led international peacekeeping force arrived by ship and plane in East Timor Monday to end weeks of militia violence that has laid waste to the territory and uprooted virtually its entire population.

Although conceding that the mission is fraught with potential danger, Maj. Gen. Peter Cosgrove said before leaving the forward staging area here that he was hopeful of receiving full cooperation from the Indonesian military -- a step that would dramatically reduce the risks facing the peacekeepers, both in the initial deployment and in the weeks ahead.

The violence was unleashed after East Timor -- a former Portuguese colony annexed by Indonesia in 1976 -- voted Aug. 30 to seek independence. The anti-independence militiamen who proceeded to kill and burn were aided and abetted by soldiers who for myriad reasons, ranging from nationalism to the accumulation of personal wealth, did not want to surrender the territory.

Cosgrove told reporters Sunday that he plans to have 3,200 troops on the ground within a week and that the U.N.-sanctioned force will grow to 7,500. It is backed by light tanks, helicopters, five patrol boats and a squadron of F-18 Hornets.

The forces’ arrival in Dili, the East Timorese capital, comes amid a massive evacuation of Indonesian soldiers and their surrogate militias, which have executed the most vicious and thorough scorched-earth exercise that Southeast Asia has seen since World War II.

“East Timor,” said Toni Pfanner, an Indonesia-based representative of the International Committee of the Red Cross, “has basically been destroyed.”

Eighty percent of Dili has been burned. All warehouses have been looted, all vehicles belonging to international agencies stolen. Out of an original population of 200,000, perhaps only 10,000 remain. Most, too afraid to return to their homes, camped out Sunday night near the harbor to await the peacekeepers’ arrival.

After days of dithering and saying it could restore security in East Timor without foreign intervention, Indonesia relented last week and invited in multinational peacekeepers. After meeting with Cosgrove in Dili on Sunday, East Timor commander Gen. Kiki Syahnakri said he would cooperate with the mission and hand over command to it by the end of the week.

Under terms of the U.N. mandate, Cosgrove’s forces have what he called “robust” rules of engagement: They will be permitted to fire at any time in self-defense and do whatever is necessary to prevent agitators from interfering with the mission or carrying arms.

Most of the militia leaders and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of their men have withdrawn to West Timor. But the gunmen still in East Timor, even though battle-tested mostly against unarmed women and children, could pose a threat to peacekeepers, particularly as the arriving troops secure the mountainous countryside and the rugged terrain along the border with West Timor.

The multinational force is supposed to be a short-term mission that will be replaced by a different U.N. force to help East Timor make the transition to independence and build a new government, Berger noted. The United States has not decided on joining the second force.