Subject: SMH: Army chief in surprise recall on eve of poll
Date: Sat, 14 Aug 1999 09:49:30 -0400

Sydney Morning Herald Saturday, August 14, 1999


Army chief in surprise recall on eve of poll

By MARK DODD, Herald Correspondent in Dili

East Timor's military commander has been recalled on the eve of the political campaign leading up to the August 30 referendum to decide the territory's future.

The changeover sees Special Forces Colonel Tono Suratman, 47, replaced by an ex-Special Forces Colonel Muhammad Noer Muis, also 47, from the strife-torn northern Aceh province. Colonel Suratman is being transferred to Jakarta.

"There is nothing special about this replacement," said Udayana (Eastern) Commander, Major-General Adam Damiri, who is based in Bali. "In the military we can do this anytime and anywhere."

The reshuffle is significant because traditionally the post has been filled by a senior officer serving in intelligence or the special forces. It is also a position that frequently has been used to operate outside the military's formal command structure. Colonel Muis, who previously served a two-year tour of duty in East Timor, comes directly from an army warfare college in Sumatra to take command of a mixed force of regular and territorial troops estimated at about 14,000.

General Damiri told reporters that the security situation in East Timor was improving and that the military would continue to play a neutral role in the lead-up to the referendum. "The situation now is conducive [for the ballot] and we have to keep it that way," he said. "I have noticed some small incidents in some areas and I have raised this with my people because East Timorese want to live in peace."

Commenting on the military's strategic planning in East Timor, General Damiri said the Indonesian military had ceased offensive operations and would redeploy its forces once pro-independence fighters and rival militias regrouped into cantonments and disarmed.

The United Nation's senior military officer in East Timor, Brigadier Rezaq Haider, said he expected "very good relations" with Colonel Muis.

Asked whether the security situation would remain calm during the political campaign period due to start today, Brigadier Haider said if rival groups stuck to the agreements they had signed, the campaign would be peaceful.

The commander-in-chief of the pro-Indonesian militias, Joao Tavares, pledged the militias would soon move into camps as required by recent agreements.

He said he was expecting a successful political campaign for the pro-autonomy side and predicted a resounding victory at the ballot box.

But in recent interviews, Basilio Araujo, the spokesman for the pro-autonomy Forum for Unity Democracy and Justice (FPDK), warned that his supporters were armed and would fight for autonomy regardless of the outcome of the referendum. Despite the promised peaceful election, a prolonged series of gunshots rang out over the market area of Dili yesterday, causing widespread panic and raising tensions.

An official from the nearby army headquarters told the UN that about 150 shots were fired by soldiers testing refurbished rifles.

One woman shopping in the market when the firing started said pro-Indonesian Aitarak militia have been warning women and children to stay off the streets today.

"Tomorrow, women and children should not leave their homes to join the campaigning because we don't want to shoot you - this is a warning," the woman said, quoting the militiaman.

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