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Indonesian Soldiers Officially Withdraw from East Timor

By Doug Struck

The commander of the Indonesian military in East Timor departed Monday, leaving security in the hands of a U.N.-authorized peacekeeping force that controls only a small part of the province.

Maj. Gen. Kiki Syahnakri left behind a token force of 1,500 Indonesian soldiers who will guard army facilities until East Timor’s Aug. 30 vote for independence is ratified by the Indonesian parliament, which meets in November.

The commander of the peacekeeping force, Australian Maj. Gen. Peter Cosgrove, welcomed the departure of the Indonesian troops -- who are accused of aiding anti-independence militias in their campaign of terror in the province. But Cosgrove expressed concern that their departure leaves a security “vacuum” that the 3,700 peacekeepers here will not immediately be able to fill.

The peacekeeping force has yet to deploy in the vast majority of East Timor, and officials worry that militia gangs may continue to harass those areas.

Cosgrove on Monday sent a force of 150 soldiers, Australian Blackhawk helicopters and armored vehicles to the town of Liquica, about 20 miles west of the capital Dili, on reports that a band of 30 armed militiamen were in the town. The Australian Broadcasting Corp. said the militiamen fled into the hills.

It was the second town outside Dili to feel the presence of the international peacekeeping force. Australian Lt. Col. Mick Slater, commander of the operation, said his troops “would not be staying long” in Liquica, but he described the action as a demonstration of the peacekeeper’s intent to restore order in the countryside.

“The people of Liquica now have some security forces on the ground,” Slater said. But he acknowledged that “the people of Liquica are a little worried, and at this point they are keeping their distance” from the peacekeepers.

The militias were recruited by the Indonesian army, and the army was involved in the burning and looting of towns throughout the province after the East Timorese voted for independence.