18 September 1999: UN forces assemble for East Timor

(with Gwen Robinson)

Darwin, Jakarta

The United Nations-mandated security force for East Timor took shape in Darwin yesterday, but conflicting signals from Indonesian military chiefs about their own position sowed confusion over the timing of its deployment. An initial force, led by Australian and British contingents, would most likely enter East Timor tomorrow to secure facilities and prepare for the arrival of the larger security force, Australian officials said.

But Indonesia's military commander in East Timor, Maj Gen Kiki Syahnakri, last night contradicted a statement by the military command in Jakarta that Maj Gen Peter Cosgrove, the Australian commander of the International Force for East Timor (Interfet), would arrive today in East Timor to discuss the planned deployment of peacekeepers.

Gen Syahnakri said Gen Cosgrove would not be coming today, and might not even arrive by tomorrow.

The uncertainty raised further questions in Darwin about commitments by Indonesian military commanders to co-operate with the peacekeepers. But defence planners said Jakarta's role yesterday in allowing the international force to complete the first air drops of relief supplies to refugees in East Timor was a promising sign.

Gen Wiranto, Indonesian military commander, said his troops would transfer responsibility for security in East Timor to the multinational force upon arrival. Some troops have been withdrawn and there had been reports of pro-Indonesian militia leaving for West Timor as well. But they were reported by afternoon to be back on the streets of Dili, armed with automatic weapons.

Tensions remained high between Indonesia and Australia, as John Howard, Australian prime minister, warned of "strong retaliation" against any attacks by Indonesian troops on the Australian-led peacekeeping force.

Canberra yesterday closed its consulate in West Timor and two government offices in other parts of the country, and Australian business representatives began withdrawing after attacks, protests and threats against Australian interests in Indonesia.

In a reference to the limited US involvement in the peacekeeping, Mr Howard said if attacks on peacekeepers took place, "then that, in turn would provoke a much stronger level of intervention and retaliation, including, I believe, stronger involvement by countries that are now giving important support but not massive support." Washington has committed just 200 support troops to the UN-mandated force. "It's difficult, it's dangerous. . . I don't disguise the possibility that there could be casualties," Mr Howard said.

There was also some internal confusion over Malaysia's announcement it would share deputy command of the Interfet operation with Thailand. The announcement followed Malaysia's reversal of a decision to withdraw from the advance security force and take part only in the full Interfet operation.

The Financial Times

Page 3

London Edition 1

Copyright (C) Financial Times Ltd, 1982-1997