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Peacekeepers Use Show of Force to Reassert Control Over East Timor

Asia: Australian-led troops move to secure the capital and rein in militias. Indonesian soldiers continue to set sites on fire as they depart the territory.

September 25, 1999|DAVID LAMB | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DILI, East Timor — With security deteriorating, Australian-led peacekeepers moved in force Friday to reassert control over this territorial capital, cordoning off neighborhoods, setting up roadblocks and sending helicopter gunships sweeping low over the city.

Australian soldiers darted among burned-out houses near Dili's port searching for weapons and militia members as helicopters hovered overhead. Armored personnel carriers blocked key intersections, and foot soldiers patrolled streets where the peacekeeping force previously had not been seen.

Commanders acknowledged that the purpose of the show of force was as much psychological as tactical. The message: After 24 years of doing as it pleased in East Timor, the Indonesian military is now answerable to the U.N.-sanctioned peacekeepers.

The operation began as the Indonesian military commander in East Timor sat down with the peacekeeping force's leader at a joint news conference. Blackhawk helicopters repeatedly passed over the military headquarters where the officers were meeting, often drowning out their words.

At one point, Indonesian Maj. Gen. Kiki Syahnakri, clearly exasperated, paused and seemed to catch his breath. His counterpart, Australian Maj. Gen. Peter Cosgrove, looked straight ahead, expressionless as his gunships roared back and forth over the compound. Two blocks away, peacekeepers sealed off a neighborhood and denied Indonesian military vehicles permission to pass.

Nonetheless, Syahnakri said he will hand over military responsibility for East Timor to the peacekeeping force as scheduled next week. He also said that, by today, 11,500 Indonesian troops will have withdrawn from East Timor, leaving 4,500 Indonesian soldiers in the territory. Their new mission will be to "coordinate and consult" with the peacekeepers, he said.

As he spoke--acknowledging that he had been unable to provide East Timor with "a safe, peaceful feeling in a quality sense"--outside the windows smoke billowed from nearby homes that his troops had set afire and from military compounds they had trashed as they withdrew.

A relief worker who flew over the countryside by helicopter Friday said Indonesian troops were still burning many sites. "They've burned the cities and the towns," the worker said. "Now they're taking care of the villages."

The Indonesian military has dominated East Timor since its forces invaded the former Portuguese colony in 1975. The recent widespread killing, looting and burning were carried out by anti-independence military-backed militias--and sometimes by the army itself--after East Timor voted Aug. 30 in a U.N.-supervised election to split from Indonesia and seek independence.

The continued violence and the risks inherent in traveling outside Dili have prevented international aid workers from getting food and supplies to many of the estimated 200,000 East Timorese who were driven from their homes by the militias.

The peacekeeping operation thus far has been carried out almost exclusively by Australian troops. They are supported by a company of British Gurkhas who are guarding the United Nations compound in Dili and have dug into hills that offer an excellent field of fire into the city.

"It's true--if you look at Dili today you see mostly Australians," Cosgrove said. "But in the days ahead, you will see soldiers from many nations coming to help the East Timorese."

Cosgrove's force, which now numbers nearly 4,000 personnel, will grow to 7,500 within three weeks and include men and women from about 20 nations, including 200 from the United States in noncombat roles. A contingent of Filipinos arrived Friday. The Portuguese are due today.

Maj. Mark Noland, executive officer of the Australian battalion sweeping through Dili, said the peacekeepers were taking preemptive measures against anti-independence militias that have grown bolder in recent days. Militia members who withdrew to the neighboring Indonesian province, West Timor, are threatening to return to the territory. Other militia members have carried out scattered killings and burnings in Dili and have intimidated refugees, U.N. personnel and journalists.

"We've heard the rumor they will start killing journalists today and Australian soldiers tomorrow," Noland said. "We'll see. Let them try to step up to the plate. The militias are full of nothing but untrained, undisciplined thugs.

"The burnings [and] the intimidation are an attempt to convince people something is happening here when nothing substantial really is," he said. "The militias aren't in control. As more and more peacekeeping troops get here, we're going to strangle their ability to operate. Once we've strangled it in Dili, we'll move out to do the same in the other areas of East Timor."

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