Troops face-offs raise Dili tension

Indonesian military and United Nations forces trade accusations of having opened fire during confrontations.

TENSIONS rose in the devastated capital of Dili yesterday after the Indonesian military and United Nations forces in East Timor traded accusations of having opened fire in a series of confrontations.

The face-offs occurred as Indonesia lifted martial law imposed on the troubled territory earlier this month and as Jakarta rushed a special task force to Dili to iron out rules of engagement between its armed forces (TNI) and the foreign troops.

The commander of the multinational force, Major-General Peter Cosgrove yesterday alluded to problems on the ground, but stopped short of saying that his Australian-led troops fired at the Indonesians. “We have followed the rules of engagement very strictly,” he told reporters.

“So far, no shots have been exchanged with anybody.”

The commander of the British military contingent, Brigadier David Richards, yesterday accused the Indonesians of opening fire near a Gurkha contingent.

The TNI spokesman in Dili, Lieutenant-Colonel Willem Rampangili, said separately at a late night press conference that there were at least three incidents when the two sides came into confrontation.

He said the first took place in Taibessi, eastern Dili, when Australian troops fired warning shots after an encounter with Indonesian soldiers in a military compound thought to have been abandoned.

The second incident took place between TNI troops occupying a military base in the city and UN troops who thought the base was being infiltrated by militias. No shots were exchanged.

A more direct confrontation took place in Dili Harbour when Australian soldiers body-searched Indonesian marines patrolling the area, the TNI military spokesman said.

He added that Major-General Cosgrove and his Indonesian counterpart, Major-General Kiki Syahnakri had met to discuss ways to prevent future “misunderstandings” in the field.

An Indonesian ground commander and government sources in Dili told The Straits Times that “the picture was far from rosy”, and that the biggest fear now was that the TNI and foreign soldiers could get embroiled in a conflict “if one soldier from either side pulls a trigger by mistake”.

Indonesian officials monitoring the situation said that more problems could crop up in the next few days preceding a complete TNI withdrawal by Sept 27.

The Indonesian Foreign Ministry sent a seven-men team to Dili yesterday to act as a liaison between the TNI and the UN forces.

A senior government official said that the main difficulty was “grappling with emotional Indonesian soldiers who have been in East Timor for a long time and are angry with the way things have worked out there”.

After weeks of militia violence, Dili has been reduced to rubble with swathes of destroyed houses and badly burnt buildings. The hum of Super Puma helicopters and the boom of the incoming Hercules aircraft punctuated an otherwise eerie silence in a barren land occupied by troops and military hardware.

In Jakarta, Justice Minister Muladi announced yesterday that President B.J. Habibie had issued a decree lifting martial law. “The decision is because the security situation in East Timor is improving,” Reuters quoted State Secretary Muladi as saying.

President B.J. Habibie had also ordered the military commander in East Timor to hand over security as soon as possible to UN forces, he added.

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