Timor militias can return – minus guns

Australian general calls first week of peacekeeping operations a success, and invites militia to disarm, come home and seek a political solution.

THE United Nations commander in East Timor, declaring the first week of peacekeeping operations in the capital a success, yesterday called on militia groups to disarm and seek a political solution in the troubled territory.

Major-General Peter Cosgrove also said that the faster-than-expected withdrawal of the Indonesian armed forces (TNI), elements of which were suspected of backing the pro-Jakarta militias, gave less chance for such groups to find sanctuary and destabilise East Timor.

“We would welcome the militias to come along back into the political debate, to come back in unarmed, to come back into their communities,” he told reporters.

“And if this is done, then East Timor has an early rosy future. If it’s not done, then this will drag on for a long time.”

Predicting that the Australian-led multinational force would be in the territory until the new year, he disclosed that he had received reports that militias were massing in neighbouring West Timor, which analysts believed were preparing for a strike at the peacekeepers.

Maj-Gen Cosgrove issued them a stiff warning: “Of course they will find us well-prepared and we won’t be defenceless. If they do return with violence on their minds, then we will be ready for that.”

To circumvent the threat, the strategy now is to deploy more troops in the territory’s interior to extend the UN’s radius of control beyond Dili and Baucau, where troops have established a strong foothold.

But his prognosis after a week of intense “cordon and search operations” was that the 4,500 Australian soldiers, to be joined soon by another 3,500 soldiers from countries such as the United States, Britain, Canada, Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines, were “successful” in securing the capital from further militia violence.

“I think we have a pretty good grip on Dili,” he said.

“I wouldn’t say this makes it incidence-free, but there is great evidence of a number of people returning to Dili to take up their lives again. This is a major achievement.”

The roads of the city yesterday swelled with more East Timorese streaming into Dili after weeks of exile in the mountains. Hundreds of others were flown in by Hercules military aircraft from the West Timor city of Kupang.

Father M. Lopez, who heads the Nosa Senyora seminary, was at the airport to receive 200 youths evacuated from his order to Kupang when it came under militia attack two weeks ago.

“I am so happy they are back,” he told The Straits Times.

“The situation has improved, and I hope we can start to live a normal life again.”

As East Timorese began their slow move back to Dili, the bulk of the remaining Indonesian soldiers were all set to leave. At least 30 military trucks lined up at the base headquarters to take logistics supplies and some 3,000 troops to the harbour to be shipped to Surabaya in East Java.

All that will remain in East Timor will be two battalions of 1,500 soldiers and a newly-created body called the Indonesian Taskforce for East Timor, whose role is limited to “consultation and liaison” with the UN.

Maj-Gen Cosgrove said that the drastic reduction in troop numbers from the original 15,000 in the territory was “a major contribution to stability”.

“The militias who otherwise have sought sanctuary and perhaps assistance from TNI will have to rethink that,” he said. But he was quick to add that the withdrawal of TNI would cause problems of its own in East Timor as factional violence broke out unhindered and mobs sought out militia men.

Senior Indonesian military sources reflected this sentiment.

They said the biggest threat to the peacekeepers were from pro-Jakarta militias who were likely to carry out a campaign of protracted guerilla warfare to extract revenge for the arrest and killings of several of their members.

A three-star army general said: “The UN forces have come prepared for action. They will get a lot of action.”

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