Subject: IHT: New Timor Force Raises Questions; Worry of Bias If Asians Lead

International Herald Tribune Wednesday, October 20, 1999

New Timor Force Raises Questions

Western Officials Worry of Bias If Asians Lead UN Peacekeepers

By Michael Richardson International Herald Tribune

SINGAPORE - The Australian-led multinational force in East Timor could be replaced by United Nations peacekeepers by the end of the year, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer of Australia said Tuesday, but some Western officials are already worried that possible Asian replacements may not have the political will to enforce their mandate.

Before the peacekeepers move in, countries contributing to the force and the UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan, must decide whether an Asian country, probably Malaysia or Thailand, should take over command responsibility from Australia.

The decision is most likely to be difficult and controversial. Indonesia wants a fellow Southeast Asian nation in control. But the pro-independence forces that now have undisputed political dominance in East Timor want Australia to remain in charge of the military operation.

''Right now, with an Australian-led force and some very tough troops that are willing, where necessary, to use force, considerable order has been imposed, even along the border area,'' a senior U.S. official said Tuesday.

''The question is,'' the official said, ''if you have a change in the force, will it still carry out the duties: being neutral, enforcing security along the border with West Timor, disarming the militias, and, if necessary, confronting them if they try to attack. Would Asian forces hold their ground if there were military incidents, or would they just retreat.''

Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad said recently that Malaysia was ready to assume command of the UN force and make a substantial troop contribution to it. Thailand, which already has deputy command of the Australian-led contingent, has made a similar bid.

East Timorese independence leaders say they are concerned that the Southeast Asian candidates are too close to the Indonesian government and will not be neutral. The fact that Malaysian troops are predominantly Muslim, while East Timor is overwhelmingly Christian, also worries them.

Officials of the 14 countries involved in the multinational force, which entered the territory a month ago to restore order, said that intense negotiations were under way to reach agreement on the leadership and composition of the proposed peacekeeping force. The new force could include as many as 9,000 soldiers and 1,600 civilian police.

''But it's possible that all this could be put in place by the end of the year or indeed before the end of the year,'' he said in Bangkok after talks with Thai officials.

There are doubts about whether a Southeast Asian-led UN force would be tough enough in dealing with pro-Jakarta militiamen and any Indonesian military regulars backing them, especially if the insurgents were coming across the border from Indonesian West Timor.

Malaysia and Thailand are partners with Indonesia in the Association of South East Asian Nations. Indonesian and Malaysian officials, and some Thai defense officials, have criticized Australia for being too ''aggressive'' and ''provocative'' in East Timor.

Mr. Downer responded Tuesday to the criticism, saying that regional countries could no longer depend on big-power support and had to solve their own problems.

The Australian official, who praised Thailand's contribution to the multinational force, said he was circumspect on who should command the UN peacekeepers. He noted, however, that the East Timorese independence leader Jose Ramos-Horta had said that people in East Timor would not accept leadership by an ASEAN country.

Mr. Downer said Australia would be willing to command the new force if asked and was also willing to work under another command.

Leaders of pro-Indonesian militia, most of whom have fled to West Timor, have vowed to mount a guerrilla war against UN-mandated forces in East Timor. So far, six militiamen and one Indonesian policeman have been killed in four clashes with the Australian-led force. Two Australian soldiers have been wounded.

After a clash close to the border last week, the Indonesian armed forces commander, General Wiranto, visited West Timor. He said that the military would disarm the militias on the Indonesian half of the island and not allow them to mount cross-border raids.

The first sign that the Indonesian military might be asserting control over the militias appeared Tuesday as more than 1,000 exhausted refugees walked over the border into East Timor.

Some said that the militiamen still active in refugee camps in West Timor had been furious at the return of the refugees, but on the instructions of the Indonesian military did nothing to stop them from going, Reuters reported from the border town of Memo in East Timor.

About 250,000 East Timorese went to West Timor and other regions during a campaign of killing and destruction waged by the militias and hard-line nationalists in the Indonesian military after East Timor's overwhelming vote for independence on Aug. 30. Many said they had been forced to leave.

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