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Militiamen Threaten East Timor Peace Despite UN Peacekeepers

By Rajiv Chandra Sekaran

Elidio de Andrade and 10 of his neighbors were trudging through dense tropical forest in the hills behind this hamlet one afternoon earlier this month when nine scruffy men decked out in camouflage and brandishing automatic rifles jumped out of the underbrush and forced the villagers to the ground.

The men started asking questions: Were there any U.N. peacekeepers in the area? How often did they patrol the hills? What kinds of weapons did they have? Then they moved on to threats, boasting that they had thousands of armed men ready to take on the peacekeepers and promising to kill the villagers if they reported the encounter to the peacekeepers or police.

De Andrade has no doubt who the armed men were -- some of the same militiamen who almost destroyed East Timor after the people of the territory voted overwhelmingly last Aug. 30 for independence from Indonesia. In the past three weeks, more than 150 militiamen with ties to the Indonesian military have infiltrated East Timor from Indonesian-controlled western Timor in an apparent effort to attack peacekeepers and terrorize civilians, according to senior military officials in the U.N. peacekeeping operation.

The steady flow of returning militiamen, and the inability of peacekeepers to stop them, is raising the prospect that East Timor, which has been relatively peaceful since international troops arrived last fall, will have to combat a long-term guerrilla insurgency opposing independence.

“We are now facing a number of highly motivated armed groups up against us,” said Lt. Col. Martin Dransfield, commander of a New Zealand army battalion assigned to guard a large swath of southwestern East Timor.

The U.S. ambassador to Indonesia, Robert Gelbard, warned that a new civil war could break out unless the Indonesian military cracks down on the militiamen.