US embargo ‘led to TNI delay in Kalimantan’

Unable to buy spare parts for planes, the armed forces found it hard to ferry men to troubled region, says minister.

Indonesian Defence Minister M.D. Mahfud, re-igniting another round of US bashing that could irritate testy bilateral relations, has blamed Washington’s arms embargo for hampering the military’s ability to quell recent unrest in Kalimantan.

He said the armed forces (TNI) could not fly reinforcements in quickly to Sampit, Central Kalimantan, as only two of its 26 Hercules troop transport planes were fit to fly.

This is because a 1999 US embargo on military sales to Indonesia – in the wake of killings by pro-Indonesia militia in East Timor – reduced the availability of spares for the aircraft.

“The main obstacles in the TNI’s delay in handling the unrest were the location, which was difficult to reach by land, and inadequate transportation,” he told reporters over the weekend.

“The United States did not allow the 24 planes which were damaged to be fixed so the dropping of TNI troops into Sampit was late.”

Mr Mahfud’s comments follow the massacre of nearly 500 people in ethnic clashes between Dayaks and the minority Madurese.

International human rights groups and foreign governments – including the US – have expressed concern that the Indonesian army did little to stop the violence.

Some senior military officers, while acknowledging that the TNI was slow to respond, said Washington had to share the “burden of responsibility” for what happened in Sampit.

Said a two-star general: “America likes to think it is morally superior to other countries. They have to realise that they are just as guilty for failing to back up our efforts in Kalimantan.

“We could not do anything because the Americans didn’t allow us to act fast enough.”

A source said the embargo meant that two transport planes had to take turns ferrying 800 troops and drop ping food and medical supplies.

The air force is now short of up to 132 mechanical and electrical parts for its aircraft, which include F-16 jets and C-130 transports.

These used to be obtained from the US – for decades the primary supplier of Indonesia’s weapons systems. The TNI has tried to get around this problem, but with limited success.

One approach was to embark on barter deals with countries such as South Korea, China and Romania. But TNI sources said equipment from these countries could not match what the US had to offer.

There was no immediate US response to Mr Mahfud, who has locked horns with Washington periodically since taking office last year.

He told visiting former Defence Secretary William Cohen in September that the embargo was partly to blame for Indonesia’s problems in disarming militiamen in West Timor.

And last week, he asked US oil giant ExxonMobil to get Congress to lift the embargo, saying that it was also preventing the TNI from protecting installations in Aceh from raids by Free Aceh Movement rebels.

Political observers and diplomats said his latest comments would only irritate the Bush administration further but was unlikely to damage ties seriously.

A Western diplomat said: “Washington will feel obliged to set the record straight. But it will pay little attention to a man who likes stirring up controversies.”

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