Subject: AFP: Clash does not signal strengthening of militia: Interfet

East Timor clash does not signal strengthening of militia: Interfet

DILI, East Timor, Oct 17 (AFP) - The bloodiest clash yet between the multinational force in East Timor and pro-Jakarta miltia did not indicate that the militia was consolidating, a senior Australian officer said here Sunday.

Despite being outnumbered four-to-one, Australian troops suffered no casualties in the clash Saturday near Marko, some 20 kilometers (12 miles) norteast of Balibo, which left three militia dead and three wounded.

The militia, numbering about 20 and armed with assualt rifles, attacked a five-man Australian reconnaissance patrol, triggering the clash.

On Saturday, an Interfet spokesman said the attackers had obviously had military training.

But on Sunday senior Interfet operations officer Colonel Ash Powell attempted to downplay speculation that the attack indicated the militia were consolidating.

Most had given themselves up and those left are simply a rag-tag hard core element with no central command, Powell said.

But he admitted that hope for negotiations with militia leaders had failed to get of the ground with no one taking up Interfet's standing offer to sit down and talk.

"There are not (any talks) at this stage, but that invitation is still open."

He dismissed suggestions that the miltia oprating across the territory were an organized unit, saying there was no indication of any central command or that indidual groups had joined together to form a larger guerrilla force.

"There's no indication that they've combined into a central force,"

But in Australia, one of that country's most respected soldiers, retired Major General Alan Stretton, warned East Timor could become a "festering sore" for years, and warned the miltia were on home ground with Interfet hopelessly outnumbered.

To properly police the 50-kilometre (31-mile) border between East Timor and Indonesian West Timor to stop militia incursions would require up to 30,000 troops, said Stretton, who was chief-of-staff of Australian forces in Vietnam.

Australian troops withdrew from Vietnam along with US forces.

"We will have a festering sore in East Timor for years to come," he said. "It is a very serious situation still."

Stretton predicted the militia would keep operating.

"After all that is their intention. They are armed and that is what they say they are going to do," he said. Earlier in the week the commander of the International Force in East Timor (Interfet), Major General Peter Cosgrove said there were "hundreds" of anti-independence fighters in East Timor.

Local inhabitants in Dare, in the hills behind Dili, told reporters Sunday that terror groups were still in the area, hiding out in caves and forcing local people to provide them with food.

Powell had no details on the situation in Dare, but said reports of militia activity, though continual, indicated their numbers were dwindling.

"The majority of them seem to be giving up, often through the churches but some through us," he said.

"Some isolated pocklets of hard core resistance are still out there and willing to fight, but it's futile act," he said.

Exactly how many miltia have given themselves up and what is happening to them remains a sensitive subject with Interfet commanders.

Questions are met with a stony silence.

The firefight at Marko Saturday was the third incident since Internet forces began pouring into East Timor September 20.

Powell said patrols in the western districts and along the border area were ongoing, with repeated sweeps through the area 24 hours a day.

Meanwhile, the remainder of a Thai advance party, numbering 112 men, arrived in the eastern city of Baucau Sunday, while more South Korean troops were due to arrive by ship at Com, in the eastern district near Los Palos.

There are now more than 6,000 Intefet troops in the territory from 16 nations, Powell said.

A German airforce medical team also arrived in Dili Sunday.

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