TNI troops pulling out of E. Timor

The unexpected move started yesterday, as confusion arose over when foreign troops would arrive.

INDONESIAN troops began an unexpected early pullout from East Timor’s capital of Dili yesterday as commanders here and in the territory gave conflicting comments about when an advance party of Australian-led peacekeepers would arrive.

Shortly after the military (TNI) said here that the territory was ready to receive the international force – and that an advance party was expected today – East Timor military chief Maj-Gen Kiki Syahnakri said they will not land today.

News agencies in Dili last night quoted him as having said the advance team “will not come tomorrow”, and it was not clear if the team – led by Australia’s Major-General Peter Cosgrove – would arrive tomorrow.

The confusion came on a day when Australian Prime Minister John Howard warned of a “massive reaction” from participating countries, including the United States, if the peacekeepers fell prey to attack in the troubled territory.

With sporadic gunfire still reverberating in the outskirts of Dili, two battalions of Indonesian troops numbering about 5,000, mostly native East Timorese and members of the district and regional commands, officially began their pullout in what TNI officials described as an attempt to “minimise the possibility of conflict”.

The East Timor military command also indicated that pro-Jakarta militias will be confined to the western part of the territory and that the men from the Aitarak group blamed for much of the destruction will be barred from Dili.

But military sources here told The Straits Times that several hundred Indonesian troops were heading for the jungles and mountains to hunt down pro-independence supporters – and could remain to fight a protracted guerilla war with the peacekeepers.

The TNI, still licking its wounds after losing the territory it invaded in 1975, and now forced to accept the Australian-led force, is likely to turn a blind eye to such activities.

A senior airforce officer said Indonesian jets are also being deployed to make occasional forays over East Timor “in a game of psychological warfare” to unnerve the foreigners.

To complicate matters, the military-backed militias responsible for much of the violence are also carving up large parts of the territory and making them “off-limits” to the 8,000-strong peacekeeping force coming in from staging points in Darwin, Australia.

Mr Howard, seen as adopting an increasingly assertive stance towards Indonesia, said soldiers are bracing themselves for possible attacks.

But he warned Jakarta that any such provocation would result in retaliation and a strengthening of the multi-national force.

“They must of course contemplate that if attacks were to occur, then that in turn would result in a much stronger level of intervention and retaliation, including stronger involvement by countries that are now giving important support,” he said.

Mr Howard, whose administration has incurred Jakarta’s ire for “meddling too much” in the East Timor debacle, said the US is among those likely to react to any aggression by Indonesian troops.

The US is committing just 200 personnel to provide logistics, communications and intelligence support. But it has also made arrangements for US heavy-lift aircraft to transport helicopters and outsized cargo from the 23 participating countries to the Darwin staging area.

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