17 September 1999: Jakarta cancels Australian pact

(with Ted Bardacke, Gwen Robinson)

Sydney, Jakarta, Bangkok

Diplomatic tensions surrounding the planned deployment of an international security force to East Timor deepened yesterday after Indonesia cancelled a security pact with Australia. Feisal Tanjung, Indonesia's political affairs minister, said Australia's "attitude and actions" over East Timor amounted to interference in Indonesia's internal affairs.

The agreement, signed in 1995, was largely symbolic and provided what both sides described as a "basis for open discussions about strategic intentions". But Australian officials last night interpreted Jakarta's move as a fresh sign of opposition within Indonesia's armed forces to the planned peacekeeping operation.

Unlike the US and European Union countries, Australia had not threatened to cut aid to Indonesia, although it had placed bilateral military ties under review. Anti-Australian sentiment, however, has grown steadily in Jakarta as Canberra has taken the lead in international lobbying over East Timor.

Defence officials in Darwin said British and Australian troops might land in East Timor as early as Sunday. They would secure ports and other facilities to make way for a UN-mandated force of at least 7,000 peacekeepers.

The UN announced yesterday that a Thai military officer would be appointed as deputy commander of the force, to be known as the International Force for East Timor, or Interfet, under its Australian commander, Maj Gen Peter Cosgrove. Australia has been particularly anxious to increase Asian regional involvement in the peacekeeping operation.

Malaysia reversed its earlier decision not to participate in the initial security force and said it would have a presence in both the initial security force and the peacekeeping operation.

John Howard, Australia's prime minister, played down the significance of Jakarta's withdrawal from the security pact, but acknowledged that bilateral relations were under strain. "What we have done over the last few weeks is to do the right thing by East Timor, and you should never be in a position in your relationship with another country that you are willing to preserve that relationship at all costs."

Assurances of co-operation from General Wiranto, the Indonesian military commander, did little to lift the apprehension in Australia about the potential dangers ahead for peacekeepers. Gen Wiranto expressed support for the intervention and announced some Indonesian troops would be withdrawn from East Timor, although he did not state numbers.

In East Timor, Indonesian troops who only a week ago were accused of collusion with pro-Jakarta militia groups, were suddenly on their best behaviour, handing out rice to refugees, clearing debris from houses they had helped destroy and firing into the air to chase away militia members still intent on torching houses.

The Financial Times

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