Subject: SMH/East Timor: Troops open fire as aid visit ends

Sydney Morning Herald September 18, 2000

Troops open fire as aid visit ends

Mark Dodd

Dili: A US Navy and Marine taskforce left East Timor at the weekend after a four-day humanitarian operation, as Australian peacekeepers exchanged fire with pro-Indonesia militia near the western border town of Maliana.

The US operation saw helicopter gunships flying close to the Indonesian border to escort a cargo-carrying helicopter delivering humanitarian aid to the remote south-west border hamlet of Lactos.

The warship visit was mainly to help with humanitarian aid and the reconstruction of East Timor, but it came amid stern warnings from Washington about Indonesia's continuing failure to take control of pro-Jakarta paramilitary gangs responsible for the recent murder of three UN staff in West Timor.

An Australian patrol operating in rugged hill country near Marko, 12 kilometres north of Maliana, was involved in an exchange of fire with at least two armed militia on Saturday, said UN spokesman Captain Mick Tafe.

In a telephone interview from Suai, Captain Tafe said no peacekeepers were hurt during the brief exchange and an absence of "blood trails" made it unlikely any militia were wounded.

About 700 of the more than 4,000 sailors and Marines involved in the US visit came ashore to help with the distribution of hundreds of tonnes of building material, land clearing and building renovation and the provision of health and dental treatment to the East Timorese.

Apart from aid, security concerns linked to recent militia violence figured prominently in the deployment, the biggest to East Timor by the US military.

Speaking on board the 40,000-tonne flagship, USS Tarawa, US taskforce commander, Captain Allan Wall, said more visits by US warships to support humanitarian operations in East Timor were likely.

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