14 September 1999: Military rejects Australian troops; East Timor conflicting signals as Indonesian Foreign Minister denies conditions placed on peacekeeping mission

(with Stephen Fidler, Michael Littlejohns, Gwen Robinson)

Jakarta, Auckland, United Nations

Indonesia's military and parliament yesterday rejected Australia as a member of a future peacekeeping force in East Timor, jeopardising the civilian government's concession to let in troops unconditionally.

"The armed forces reject Australia as part of any peacekeeping troops," said Brig Gen Sudrajat, the Indonesian military spokesman.

He said Indonesia "wants the majority of the force to come from Asean" - the Association of South East Asian Nations.

Parliament leaders objected not only to Australia but also to troops from the US, New Zealand and Portugal, countries they deemed too biased in favour of pro-independence groups in East Timor.

However, hours after the military statement, Ali Alatas, foreign minister, flatly denied that Indonesia put any conditions on a UN peacekeeping mission. "We are putting no conditionalities so it is all up to the United Nations to prepare the composition," Mr Alatas said as he arrived at the UN to head negotiations on the composition of the force.

UN leaders have insisted on Australia's participation but all parties in the talks know that any UN mission would be doomed if it faced a stand-off with Indonesian troops on the ground. "Indonesia and Australia have good relations and we did not come here to prevent any country from participating," Mr Alatas said. But he added that it was up to states themselves to consider whether "their presence would exacerbate the situation or improve it".

The contradictory statements illustrated a split among Indonesian authorities - which surfaced last week and gave rise to coup rumours - over East Timor and threats of economic sanctions by the international community.

President B.J. Habibie seemed to have overrun military objections by inviting foreign troops on Sunday, and General Wiranto, his military commander, appeared eager to dispel suggestions he had sidelined Mr Habibie. However, only Australia has troops ready to move. By objecting to Australian troops, Indonesia's powerful military seemed intent on buying time for their soldiers in East Timor, warding off sanctions until they finish a scorched earth policy that has left hundreds, possibly thousands, dead.

The US, Britain and Australia, and Kofi Annan, the UN secretary-general, rejected Indonesia's right to influence the force's composition. Asked about the military's stance, President Bill Clinton said today: "We do not understand that to be the position. So far no trouble has been made and we hope there won't be any."

He added: "I do not believe they should be able to dictate the composition." A New Zealand official said: "There are differing centres of power in the Indonesian system, different messages coming from each of them, but overall, we see steadily growing momentum towards getting the international force into East Timor."

Consultations on the peacekeeping force were adjourned last night by the UN Security Council. Talks were not scheduled for today but Peter van Walsum, Council president, said a resolution would be circulated "fairly soon". John Howard, Australia's prime minister, said Canberra had been asked by the secretary general to lead the force. There has been an upsurge of Indonesian protest demonstrations against Australia, which diplomats presume have been partially organised by the military.

Mr Habibie's agreement to let in peacekeepers pushed talk of sanctions off the agenda at the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (Apec) summit in New Zealand but Sandy Berger, the US national security adviser, said no aid should be forthcoming until peacekeepers set foot in East Timor. EU foreign ministers also agreed yesterday to impose a four-month embargo on arms sales to Indonesia.

Additional reporting by Gwen Robinson and Stephen Fidler in Auckland and Michael Littlejohns at the UN in New York

The Financial Times

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