Subject: SFChron: U.N. peacekeepers in East Timor are under increasingly intense and organized attack from pro- Indonesia militias

The San Francisco Chronicle September 19, 2000

Under the Gun

U.N. peacekeepers in East Timor are under increasingly intense and organized attack from pro- Indonesia militias

By Ian Timberlake

Batugade, East Timor

Lt. Simon Mouatt's patrol had just stopped for the night in grassland along the border with Indonesia -controlled West Timor when a gunshot sounded in the distance.

Mouatt and his team of U.N. peacekeepers saw two armed men. "We warned them many times to put their weapons down," the Australian soldier said.

They didn't.

The two sides exchanged gunfire. The armed men, who were members of militias backed by elements in the Indonesian military, tossed grenades. Seconds later, it was over. A militiaman was shot in the leg but managed to escape. The other was captured. No U.N. forces were injured.

The clash occurred last month about five miles from East Timor's northernmost border post at a village called Batugade. It was one of an increasing number of clashes between U.N. personnel and the pro- Indonesia militias in recent months.

The most dramatic of these was a militia attack September 6 on a U.N office in which three foreign staffers, including an American, were beaten to death. That attack prompted the United Nations to evacuate the remaining workers in West Timor.

As U.N. soldiers mark the end of their first year in East Timor on Sept. 20, they face increased violence from the very militiamen whose recent history of killing, pillaging and forced deportation of East Timorese prompted their arrival.

The estimated 500 militiamen and their 1,500 sympathizers now pose the major challenge to the U.N.-administered territory, most observers agree.

"(Security) is the biggest problem," East Timor's independence leader, Jose Alexandre "Xanana" Gusmao, told reporters in the ruined capital city of Dili. "If the people don't feel secure, the process of running a transitional administration will not be successful."

Since early August, more than 3,000 U.N. forces intensified patrols along the frontier with West Timor and in the mountains south of Dili because of increased attacks. Most recently, they have been supported by four Black Hawk helicopters, said Norwegian Col. Brynjar Nymo, a spokesman for U.N. peacekeepers in Dili.

And just last week, the United States sent 4,000 Navy and Marine troops to deliver aid and mount a show of force.

Nymo said his soldiers have been tracking some 10 militia groups with 120 members inside East Timor. "I would say this is probably the largest influx of militia that we know of," he said.

Most political observers agree that Indonesian security forces created the militias to terrorize East Timor's 800,000 inhabitants before the 1999 referendum in which the East Timorese voted overwhelmingly to become an independent state. Indonesia had annexed the former Portuguese colony in 1975.

More than 1,000 Timorese were murdered and almost 300,000 were forcibly expelled to West Timor.

Early this month, Indonesia's Attorney General Marzuki Darusman named 19 military, militia and former East Timor government officials as suspects in last year's widespread violence. Just last week, seven were summoned for questioning, but only three showed up.

Also early this month, the murder of one of the suspects, militia leader Olivio Mendosa Moruk, triggered the mob attack in the West Timor village of Atambua that killed the three U.N. aid workers. The next day, hundreds of militiamen invaded Betun, another West Timor village and reportedly killed eight people. They later set up blockades, extorting money and cigarettes from passing motorists and searching cars for any remaining foreigners.

Lt. Mouatt's platoon has already seen its share of battle. Before the Batugade confrontation, militia gangs had tossed grenades and sprayed the unit's sleeping quarters with gunfire after they patrolled a central border region.

"Fortunately, we took defensive preparations that day that enabled the soldiers to save their lives," Mouatt said.

U.N. soldiers also say the militias are better disciplined than ever before. A political observer says the gunmen were trained on Indonesia's main island of Java and are also well armed. Last month, a Nepalese peacekeeper became the second U.N soldier to die in the past two months.

"These people (militia) shot more than 300 rounds," said a Jakarta-based diplomat regarding the firefight.

The same diplomatic source in Jakarta said the gangs are linked to the same "rogue element of the army" suspected of causing violence in other regions of Indonesia to undermine the democratic government of President Abdurrahman Wahid. "East Timor is an ideal place to destabilize Indonesia and its relations with the world," said the source.

Gusmao made a similar accusation, blaming some members of the Indonesian special forces, known as Kopassus, for supporting the militia. He and other East Timor leaders want foreign troops to stay even after full independence is declared, which could occur sometime next year.

According to Col. Nymo, the U.N. peacekeeper spokesman, the key to ending the violence is the 120,000 East Timor refugees in West Timor. The camps provide the gunmen with a place to hide. And through fear and intimidation, the militias keep the majority of the displaced from going home.

"That is their power base that allows them to operate and continue to come across (the border)," said Nymo.

As a result, some Indonesian officials have proposed closing down the refugee camps in three to six months.

Sergio Vieira de Mello, who heads the U.N. Transitional Administration in East Timor, insists camp closures will occur only if there are enough Indonesian soldiers to separate the militia members from the majority of the refugees who want to go home.

Some observers say the military is already stretched to its limit, dealing with Muslim-Christian fighting in Maluku and Poso, a separatist war for independence in West Papua and a war with Islamic separatists in Aceh. These same observers doubt that the army will be able to send enough men to complement the 2,000 already stationed in West Timor and outnumber the 2,000 militiamen and their followers.

"Closing the camps is perhaps one of the only solutions left, but I just don't see how it is going to happen," said a Western diplomat in Jakarta.

In the meantime, freedom from fear remains elusive for many residents living near the frontier with West Timor.

"It's true there are many U.N. soldiers," said Ruben dos Reis, a 24-year-old Batugade farmer. "But all the people who live near the border are afraid."

GRAPHIC: PHOTO (2), MAP, (1) Australian members of the U.N. Peacekeeping Force patrolled a beach road near the East Timor border village of Batugade., (2) U.N. officials say West Timor refugee camps, like this giant one in Atambua, serve as bases for militia who launch attacks into East Timor. / Photos by Ian Timberlake/Special to The Chronicle, MAP: Chronicle Graphic

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