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Commander of East Timor Force Defends Slow Peacekeeping Pace

By Keith B. Richburg
THE WASHINGTON POST -- DILI, East Timor

On the day after Australian-led peacekeepers had their first direct conflict with pro-Indonesian militiamen and killed two of them, the commander of the international force defended the pace of the mission against charges it is moving too slowly in securing East Timor’s outlying provinces.

“It is just a litany of rubbish,” Australian Maj. Gen. Peter Cosgrove, the head of the U.N.-backed peacekeeping force, told reporters at a morning briefing at a fortified seaside hotel. “Our peacekeepers are moving extremely quickly... in this harsh terrain.”

Cosgrove angrily dismissed the suggestion that aid groups and others have been moving into remote areas of East Timor well before the peacekeepers. He said the humanitarian relief groups and the peacekeepers “are working hand-in-glove” to reach all parts of the territory as fast as possible, while not risking lives unnecessarily.

Among the critics have been resistance leader Xanana Gusmao, and Jose Ramos-Horta, the Nobel Prize-winning independence campaigner, who have urged the force to move faster.

“It is easy to stand back and say, ‘Why don’t you shotgun your people all over the province?’” Cosgrove said. “This is a prudent but quick operation.”

The peacekeeping force moved unchallenged this week into Maliana, a former militia stronghold and hometown of militia commander-in-chief Joao Tavares. Tavares, 68, who is now in Indonesian-ruled western Timor, said in August that his men would wage a guerrilla war to prevent East Timor from becoming independent, and the overwhelming Aug. 30 vote in favor of independence unleashed a wave of attacks by the militias and their allies in the Indonesian military and led to the peacekeepers’ arrival.

“Maliana is now secure,” said Col. Mark Kelly, the spokesman for the peacekeepers.

The multinational force now numbers more than 6,000. It is expected to reach a full strength of 7,500 soon with the arrival of soldiers from Thailand, which is expected to have the second-largest contingent here. Thai Maj. Gen. Songkitti Chakkabatr took up his duty as deputy commander of the peacekeeping operation Thursday, placing an Asian face, and an Indonesian neighbor, in a prominent position in the force in what has seen as a concession to Jakarta’s nationalist sensibilities.

Meeting the press Thursday for the first time, Songkitti said there were no differences between the approach his troops and the Australians are taking in the mission.

The United States also increased its role with the arrival Thursday of the USS Belleau Wood, an amphibious assault ship bringing four heavy-lifting CH-53E helicopters that will be used to ferry equipment and supplies for the multinational troops.

The crew of the Belleau Wood includes 900 Marines and 900 sailors, but only 20 Americans are said to be on land and spending the night in Dili, the East Timor capital.