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Cohen Warns Indonesia to Either Disarm Militia or Face Isolation

By Richard C. Paddock

U.S. Defense Secretary William S. Cohen urged Indonesia on Monday to take quick action to disarm and disband militia gangs in West Timor or face isolation by the international community.

After meeting with President Abdurrahman Wahid and other top officials, Cohen said Indonesia must prove by its actions that it will combat the ruthless paramilitary gangs responsible for killing three U.N. workers, including an American, earlier this month.

“Indonesia faces a momentous decision: whether to build a fair, just society under the rule of law or to allow unpunished violence to explode the dream of democracy, stability, unity and prosperity,” the secretary said.

A series of politically targeted killings and bombings has heightened instability in the vast island nation and made it apparent that Wahid, a frail Muslim cleric, has little control over the military or its alter ego, the militias.

Many Indonesians fear that elements within the military and supporters of ousted dictator Suharto are mounting a campaign of violence -- including the slaying of the U.N. aid workers -- in a bid to undermine Wahid and return to power.

After the three U.N. staffers were hacked to death by militia members Sept. 6, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution insisting that Indonesia disband the militias and arrest and prosecute those who carried out the killings.

So far, Indonesia has made no progress in bringing the gangs to heel or in arresting the culprits.

In comments that startled and angered Western diplomats last week, Wahid’s new defense minister, Mohammad Mahfud, suggested that the U.N. workers were killed in a plot masterminded by Australian spies. Indonesian officials also said they would not meet with a U.N. Security Council delegation scheduled to visit Indonesia to discuss implementation of the resolution.

Cohen, who arrived in Indonesia on Sunday, said he had been asked by President Clinton to highlight the issue of Indonesia’s “disappointing response” to the slayings.

Failure to rein in the militias, he said, “could jeopardize continued economic assistance to Indonesia.” The government in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, has received many billions of dollars in aid from international lenders and is counting on continued financial help.

The issue for Wahid is not whether he wants to control the militias, it is whether he can.

Under Suharto, the military was primarily a tool for controlling the civilian population and was known for its brutality. Last year, the army created militias in East Timor to intimidate the population into voting against independence in a U.N.-sponsored ballot. When the populace voted to secede from Indonesia anyway, the militias massacred hundreds of people and razed much of the province.

The militia members fled from U.N. peacekeeping troops to West Timor, where they have lived under the protection of the Indonesian army in camps alongside hundreds of thousands of refugees. Indonesia has not convicted anyone in the East Timor killings.

Many people suspect that the military played a part in last week’s car bombing of the Jakarta Stock Exchange, which killed 15 people. The blast, which was caused by military-style plastic explosives, was widely interpreted as a warning to the government not to proceed with the corruption trial of Suharto, now 79 and in poor health.