16 September 1999: Threats directed at East Timor force: UN peacekeeping presidential adviser says australian troops might be singled out for militia attacks

(with Stephen Fidler)

Jakarta, Christchurch

Australian and other troops arriving in East Timor in the next few days will be hard pressed to save refugees, neutralise murderous militia and avoid clashing with unfriendly Indonesian troops, diplomats and analysts believe.

As anti-Australian feeling mounted in the Indonesian capital last night, senior officials were openly warning of threats to members of the international force. Dewi Fortuna Anwar, an adviser to President B.J. Habibie, said Australian troops might be singled out for militia attacks, since Australia was seen as having sided with pro-independence Timorese. Another presidential adviser said he had heard some generals saying they would love to see Australian troops facing guerrilla war.

The first of up to 8,000 soldiers may arrive as early as tomorrow, but it remains unclear when or how they will be able to bring food and water to some 200,000 refugees holed up in the mountains, surrounded by hostile militia and Indonesian military.

It is also unclear whether the countries leading the peacekeeping force have formulated a strategy to disarm the pro-Indonesian militia, or kill them if they act on their threat to attack the soldiers.

And when it comes to dealing with some 20,000 Indonesian soldiers and police, who have openly collaborated with the militia and are now supposed to co-operate with foreign troops as liaison officers and advisers, diplomats are apprehensive.

John Howard, Australian prime minister, yesterday said the forces would be given "adequate legal authority" to defend themselves and take "whatever action is necessary to implement their mandate".

Alexander Downer, Australia's foreign minister, said: "We are under no illusions - this is a dangerous mission."

"It all comes down to the rules of engagement," said a diplomat in Jakarta, referring to negotiations at the UN in New York on the code of conduct for the foreign troops. "Can they shoot? What is the role of the Indonesia military?

"If it doesn't work you get a sort of Vietnam syndrome, pumping in more and more troops. But I'm not at all sure many countries are prepared to do this. East Timor is just a little island."

Other analysts doubted whether much aid would reach refugees in the mountains any time soon. "If you drop food close to the refugees you expose their location to the militia. If you drop too far away they can't get it," a diplomat said.

While the international force can only operate within East Timor, they could well face daily raids by pro-Indonesian militia hiding in West Timor, which is part of Indonesia.

A UN official staying in Dili, the East Timor capital, said he had seen trucks of militia leaving the city, but Allen Nairn, a freelance US journalist under arrest in the capital, told the FT by cellular phone that hundreds of militia members, armed and uniformed, were roaming around Dili's military headquarters where he was being held.

The Straits Times of Singapore yesterday cited military sources as saying General Wiranto, the military commander, might resign in October to run for president.

A military spokesman denied the report and a self-described friend of the general said he had set his sights on the vice-presidency only, aware that neither he nor the military were strong enough to stand in the political firing line.

"He does want to be president eventually, but first as number two and then as number one," the friend said.

Clinton urges military exercises

The US should carry out military exercises with New Zealand to prepare for operations in East Timor, President Bill Clinton said yesterday, writes Stephen Fidler in Christchurch. He said he hoped an international force would be able to enter East Timor "in a couple of days", as soon as a United Nations resolution passed, which he believed would happen today.

After a meeting in Christchurch with Jenny Shipley, New Zealand's prime minister, Mr Clinton said it was important that military exercises were carried out with Australia and the other countries participating in the international force being readied for East Timor.

Joint exercises between the US and New Zealand were effectively barred when the US suspended its security obligations to New Zealand in 1986 after a Labour government barred nuclear armed and nuclear powered warships from ports in the country.

The Financial Times

Page 4

International Edition 1

Copyright (C) Financial Times Ltd, 1982-1997