Subject: WP front page: Returning Militias Threaten E. Timor Peace

Washington Post Foreign Service Tuesday, August 22, 2000; Page A01

Returning Militias Threaten E. Timor Peace

Photo: The setting sun illuminates a wooden cross erected for victims last summer's violence in Dili, East Timor. (AP)

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran Washington Post Foreign Service

LABURAI, East Timor – Elidio de Andrade and 10 of his neighbors were trudging through dense tropical forest in the hills behind this hamlet one afternoon earlier this month when nine scruffy men decked out in camouflage and brandishing automatic rifles jumped out of the underbrush and forced the villagers to the ground.

They started asking questions: Were there any U.N. peacekeepers in the area? How often did they patrol the hills? What kinds of weapons did they have? Then they moved on to threats, boasting that they had thousands of fighters ready to take on the peacekeepers and promising to kill the villagers if they reported the encounter to the peacekeepers or police.

De Andrade has no doubt who the armed men were: some of the same militiamen who almost destroyed East Timor after the territory's residents voted overwhelmingly last Aug. 30 for independence from Indonesia. In the past three weeks, more than 150 militiamen with ties to the Indonesian military have infiltrated East Timor from Indonesian-controlled western Timor in an apparent effort to attack peacekeepers and terrorize civilians, according to senior military officials in the U.N. peacekeeping operation.

The steady flow of returning militiamen, and the inability of peacekeepers to capture them, is raising the prospect that East Timor, which has been relatively peaceful since international troops arrived last fall, will have to combat a long-term guerrilla insurgency opposing independence.

"We are now facing a number of highly motivated, armed groups up against us," said Lt. Col. Martin Dransfield, commander of a New Zealand army battalion responsible for guarding a large swath of southwestern East Timor.

The U.S. ambassador to Indonesia, Robert Gelbard, warned that a new civil war could break out unless the Indonesian military cracks down on the militiamen. "The militias are allowed to run with total impunity in west Timor, thereby allowing the territory to be used as a base for the attacks on East Timor," he said in a telephone interview Sunday. "By abetting the militias, [the Indonesian government is] on the verge of allowing a guerrilla war to be waged in East Timor."

The militiamen, who have split into as many as a dozen small groups, are operating in the mountainous western part of East Timor, although some bands have sneaked all the way into the central part, officials said. Some military leaders are worried that a few groups could be on their way to Dili, the capital, where soldiers have set up checkpoints along main roads into the city.

Peacekeepers also have received regular reports of militia members descending on villages to threaten residents and steal food.

"We are in our most trying time," Maj. Gen. Mike Smith, the Australian deputy peacekeeping commander, said during a meeting with military commanders last week, according to those present.

The presence of anti-independence militia groups has panicked battle-weary East Timorese, who had been trying to rebuild their lives after last summer's devastation. In the town of Maununo, in the central part of the territory, where 12 people were killed by militiamen last September, scores of fearful residents now spend the nights hidden in mountain forests. In the village of Holbolu, in southwestern East Timor, men have sent their wives and children to live in Suai, a nearby city with a large barracks of peacekeepers. And here in Laburai – also near Suai about 10 miles east of the border and 50 miles southwest of Dili – residents carry machetes for protection and have started nightly patrols.

"We are very scared," said de Andrade, 28. "We thought the militias had gone away."

In Holbolu, villagers have started rebuilding homes that the militias burned last year. Families separated in refugee camps have been reunited. Corn and green bean crops look healthy.

"Until last week, life here was back to normal," said Apolinario Godinho, 29, a farmer. "Now, it is not normal anymore. We feel like it is the old days."

The rugged mountains of East Timor, with their thick foliage and low-hanging clouds, have long been hospitable to rebel groups, including Timorese independence guerrillas who had bases deep in the mountains from where they launched raids on Indonesian soldiers during Indonesia's 24-year occupation of the territory.

"The militias know from history it's possible to operate for years in the dense mountainous regions of East Timor," said Norwegian Col. Brynjar Nymo, a spokesman for the U.N. peacekeeping operation.

The recent attacks, which are the most confrontational and dangerous encounters between the militias and international troops to date, have resulted in the deaths of two peacekeepers and two militiamen in the past month. A Nepalese peacekeeper died from wounds he sustained in a gun battle with a band of militiamen near Holbolu, and a peacekeeper from New Zealand was fatally shot in the head during a clash with a militia group.

In the days after East Timor voted for independence, the militias, which had been supported by the Indonesian military, engaged in an rampage of burning, looting and killing that left several hundred independence supporters dead and destroyed more than 85 percent of the territory's houses, businesses and government buildings.

When international troops landed in East Timor last September, the militias retreated into western Timor – the part of the island still controlled by Indonesia – where they have been living in refugee camps with many of the same people who fled the violence the militiamen wrought.

Although the militias have intimidated and otherwise prevented many of refugees from returning home – there are still about 100,000 East Timorese living in the squalid camps – the militias had not been causing trouble inside East Timor until recently.

U.N. officials are not sure why the militias have decided to return now – or just what they hope to accomplish. Some officials said the influx could be an effort to flex their muscle before the first anniversary of East Timor's independence vote. Others said it could be related to the Indonesian military's recent efforts to rein in the militia groups as well as the Indonesian government's recent promise to close the refugee camps, which the militias have been using as a base, within six months. Yet others speculated that the fighters have spent the past year regrouping and now are ready to launch another round of revenge attacks on independence supporters.

Military officials and Western diplomats said some militiamen are decommissioned Indonesian soldiers who still are wearing uniforms and carrying automatic rifles. Others are civilians whom the Indonesian military has trained and armed, the officials and diplomats said.

Although Indonesian military leaders have said they are committed to cracking down on the militias, thus far they have failed to disband the groups. Indonesian officials maintain that they are undermanned and ill-equipped for the task.

Some Western diplomats contended that the Indonesian military is not just failing to corral the militias, but actively supporting them with weapons, food, uniforms and training. Western diplomats said the militias have received new weapons and training in the past year from current and former military officers, some of whom likely are members of Indonesia's special forces.

U.N. officials insisted that the 7,800 peacekeepers in East Timor are enough to handle the militia threat, although some military officials privately expressed frustration about their inability to move units from the relatively tranquil eastern part of the territory to the more volatile western region because of agreements between the United Nations and countries supplying troops that limit where certain soldiers can be deployed.

Some peacekeepers also questioned the U.N. rules of engagement in East Timor. Although the rules are among the most aggressive for any peacekeeping mission, allowing soldiers to shoot for reasons other than self-defense, military officials have ordered peacekeepers to fire only if they are directly threatened.

"They [the militias] can put down their arms and blend in with the local community, or they can walk across the border," said Capt. Guy Moten, an Australian army pilot. "Our engagement is limited. There is a sense of frustration."

Sergio Vieira de Mello, the U.N. secretary general's representative who is effectively East Timor's president until elections are held next year, said he is thinking about modifying the rules of engagement to give peacekeepers greater latitude to use deadly force.

"Obviously we haven't come to East Timor to kill people," de Mello said in an interview. "On the other had, we're not going to allow our soldiers to become sitting ducks for these guys to aim at."

August Menu
World Leaders Contact List
Human Rights Violations in East Timor
Main Postings Menu

Note: For those who would like to fax "the powers that be" - CallCenter V3.5.8, is a Native 32-bit Voice Telephony software application integrated with fax and data communications... and it's free of charge! Download from