Subject: Interview: U.S. backs Australia to lead in E.Timor

INTERVIEW-U.S. backs Australia to lead in E.Timor

By Joanne Collins

DILI, East Timor, Dec 4 (Reuters) - The United States' top general on Saturday backed Australia to head an 11,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force in East Timor from early next year.

This puts the United States at odds with some Asian nations which have criticised Australia's role as head of a multinational force which went into the ravaged territory in September to help end a campaign of murder and destruction by pro-Jakarta gangs.

``There are a number of nations who could be in competition to lead...but certainly the Australians have done a great job. A continuation of the Australians, I think, would be great,'' the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Henry Shelton, told Reuters during a one-day visit to East Timor.

The U.N. force is due to replace the 7,500-strong international intervention force early next year to help ravaged East Timor in the transition to independence.

Australia, the Philippines and Thailand have all been touted as possible leaders.

Several Filipino military officers have been interviewed as possible candidates to head the new force.

TIMORESE VOICE OBJECTIONS

But East Timorese leaders are opposed to any southeast Asian nations being in charge, saying they have too often sided with Indonesia during its often brutal 23-year rule in the tiny territory which in August voted overwhelmingly to go independent.

The mission is destined to be one of the United Nations' most expensive, costing an estimated $700 million to $1 billion in its first full year.

The U.N. force is expected to stay for two to three years.

The size of the force is particularly sensitive for the United States, which will finance 25 to 30 percent of the operation.

The issue remains whether the U.N. force needs to be as large as originally agreed, given that the current force of 7,500 has all but completed its mandate of securing the territory.

``They (Australia) certainly have laid a great framework for being able to bring the force down in the future,'' said Shelton.

``But I don't know what the final size will be...that hasn't been determined yet.''

REFUGEES, ARMY ROLE TO DETERMINE US/INDONESIA RELATIONS

Shelton said military relations with Indonesia would be reviewed pending the return of refugees from West Timor, the Indonesian half of the island.

The U.S. stopped weapons sales and suspended military ties with Jakarta in protest at the Indonesian military's support of anti-independence militias in East Timor.

``We are not back on a full scale military-to-military (relationship) at this point, but we are optimistic it will continue,'' Shelton said.

``Certainly, the recent elections and the president's new establishment of civil control over the military and some of the changes that have taken place, I think all bodes well for the future.

``But again, the proof is in the pudding...so we have to wait and see how this plays out and what the TNI's (Indonesian military's) role is going to be in the future.''

An estimated 250,000 East Timorese were driven out of the territory in the violence that followed the August 30 vote for independence.

More than 100,000 East Timorese have since returned but many remain in West Timor where they have been subject to intimidation and harassment by pro-Jakarta militia groups.

03:25 12-04-99


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