Subject: Age: UN warns East Timor militias: behave or else

The Age May 18, 2002

UN warns East Timor militias: behave or else

By Tom Hyland, Lindsay Murdoch

On the eve of East Timor's independence, the United Nations has given a blunt warning to the militias who destroyed the territory in 1999 - they will be met with lethal force if they attempt to take advantage of the UN's withdrawal.

The UN administrator of East Timor, Sergio Vieira de Mello, told UN peacekeepers, including Australians, that their use of force against the militias in 1999 and 2000 had helped secure East Timor's freedom.

Two peacekeepers were killed and a number wounded in those clashes, but they had delivered a "convincing blow to the militias", showing them that "no longer could they confront us".

"Let them try us again and they will get the same response again," he told the troops, who paraded in sweltering heat outside the UN headquarters here, during a ceremony to mark the imminent end of Mr de Mello's role as head on the UN administration of East Timor.

Frantic last-minute preparations were under way yesterday for independence celebrations that are expected to draw up to 200,000 people to a vast field just west of Dili on Sunday night. Representatives of 80 countries are expected to attend, among them former US president Bill Clinton and Australian Prime Minister John Howard.

Mr de Mello's comments contrasted with the growing excitement among East Timor's 800,000 people on the verge of achieving freedom after decades of struggle and suffering.

His warning comes as the phased withdrawal of UN peacekeepers is well under way, although some will stay here for at least another two years. From a peak of 9000 in late 1999- early 2000, numbers have fallen to 6200. Just 2000 will be left by the end of the year. Australia has given no time frame for the withdrawal of its troops.

The pull-out is continuing even as UN officials privately warn that Indonesian military officers who created and directed the militias in 1999 could try to take advantage of the UN withdrawal, especially any reduction of troops on the West Timor border, where an Australian battalion is based.

"There are not too many people who are going to take on our boys on the border," a UN official told The Age this week. But trouble on the border could start up "at any time", the official said, "if people in Jakarta - not (President) Megawati - want it to".

"The word is people in Jakarta will start it up after the UN goes," he said.

Preparations are well advanced for celebrations across the country at midnight tomorrow, when UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan declares East Timor independent, ending four centuries of foreign domination - first by Portugal and then by Indonesia.

In his speech to the peacekeepers yesterday, Mr de Mello said they had shown "the good that people with arms can do". This contrasted with the Indonesian military, which had dominated the territory for 25 years, he said.

Without naming the Indonesian army, he said they had been "responsible for fear rather than comfort". The peacekeepers had "brought freedom from fear and that must surely form the future of a secure and confident nation".

The head of the Roman Catholic Church here, Bishop Carlos Belo, also expressed doubt yesterday that the militia threat had passed. "We don't know. We should wait one week or 10 days," he told reporters.

In New York, the UN Security Council is set to approve a new peacekeeping force that will remain in East Timor with a new UN mission that will support the incoming East Timorese government. It will have an initial strength of 5000 troops and 1200 civilian police.

Former guerrilla leader Jose "Xanana" Gusmao, who will be formally sworn in as East Timor's first president shortly after midnight on Sunday, was in a subdued and reflective mood yesterday as he discussed his new role.

Asked for his thoughts about the significance of Independence Day, the man who fought as a guerrilla fighter for 18 years, then served eight years as a political prisoner in Jakarta, said he felt more emotion on August 30, 1999, when East Timorese, defying militia and Indonesian army intimidation, voted for independence in a UN referendum.

He said he would still rather be a pumpkin farmer than the leader of the world's newest, and one of its poorest, nations. But he had felt obliged to the people, who insisted he nominate for last month's presidential election that he won overwhelmingly.

"I never wanted to be president. I don't want to be president," he said. "But I promise to go to the people again and again to discuss their difficulties."

Despite the ordeal his country endured under Indonesian rule, Mr Gusmao was conciliatory towards Jakarta and evaded a question about prosecutions by a Jakarta court of Indonesian officials accused of carrying out atrocities here in 1999. The prosecutions have been widely criticised as deeply flawed, with those responsible for ordering the violence escaping charges.

Mr Gusmao said his people had fought for independence to see improvements in their lives, and this was their priority. Questions about prosecutions for human rights violations should be directed to prosecutors and judges, he said.

Bishop Belo was less diplomatic. He said he hoped Indonesia had learnt from its East Timor experience, but warned freedom fighters in the Indonesian provinces of Aceh and West Papua that many of them would die if they continued their struggle.

"It is more difficult for them. We had the support of the international community," he said. "We hope that in the spirit of democracy, they (Indonesia) will respect people who are fighting for their rights."

Bishop Belo was unequivocal about the need to punish those who carried out the 1999 violence, which left this country in ruins and killed an unknown number of unarmed civilians. In the past, the bishop has put the toll at 3000 - more than double the figure usually cited.

He said that at midnight on Sunday he would thank God for his country's independence, and warned that the church would continue to be a moral voice for the people, as it had been under Indonesian occupation.

We will not abandon our baby, UN East Timor envoy promises

DILI, May 17 (AFP) - The United Nations will never abandon "its child" East Timor, the UN's outgoing chief administrator Sergio Vieira de Mello promised Friday -- two days before the poverty-stricken territory is to be declared independent. "This is our child. East Timor is the baby of the UN," de Mello told a small group of foreign journalists as he spelt out the successes and failures of the UN's 32-month mission here before it is replaced Monday by a smaller successor mission.

"We're not pulling the plug on East Timor ... we will never abandon it."

The UN Security Council was preparing later Friday to approve a resolution authorising the United Nations Mission of Support in East Timor to succeed the Transitional Administration (UNTAET) on May 20.

The UN had brought security, stability, law and order, established a judiciary, police force and defence force, and overseen the "peaceful, exemplary" elections of a parliament and president, de Mello said of the mission's successes since it took unprecedented full authority over the territory in October 1999.

It had also instilled a culture of tolerance and non-violence, leaving him optimistic about reconciliation between pro-independence East Timorese and their pro-Indonesian brothers.

Pro-Jakarta militias staged a bloody and hugely destructive rampage before and after the people voted overwhelmingly in August 1999 vote for independence after two decades of Indonesian occupation.

"Contrary to my experiences in Africa and the Balkans, hatred has not been an obstacle, an insurmountable obstacle like in other post-conflict situations," he said.

But mistakes were made in prematurely appointing East Timorese to the fledgling judiciary and in a "cumbersome" approach to rebuilding the territory, de Mello said.

The mission should also have brought in teams of experts in public administration and reconstruction, he added.

"We were too cumbersome in our approach to systems and too elaborate and too complex for a country that was still coming out of intensive care," he said.

De Mello said his greatest satisfaction was seeing the East Timorese take over the reins of the former Portuguese colony, he said, defying the "prophets of doom" who had doubted their capabilities.

"The East Timorese have shown that they have been able to run their country and take it in their hands," he said.

The darkest moments were in July and August 2000, when anti-independence militias based in Indonesian-ruled West Timor killed two peacekeepers, one New Zealander and one Nepalese, and infiltrated as far as the central districts.

The UN authorised peacekeepers to mount offensives against an estimated 150-200 militiamen. At least two battalions of multinational troops launched Operation Cobra and Operation Crocodile.

Ex-Falantil guerrillas helped the peacekeepers track and isolate the militiamen, depriving them of food and water and cutting their communications channels.

"We hit hard. Having been threatened, we revised our rules of engagement. It worked," he said.

At least five militiamen were killed over several weeks. "Some surrendered. Others retreated with their tails between their legs and never came back and the border has been quiet ever since late 2000," he said.

"For many weeks I wondered whether a counter-offensive would work, and it did."

The French-educated Brazilian diplomat, 52, who has served in UN missions in Sudan, the former Yugoslavia, Cambodia, Lebanon, Cyprus and Mozambique, named the East Timorese' ability to forgive as the most significant lesson he had learnt in his posting.

"Their capacity to forgive. I have never seen it elsewhere ... and I've seen conflicts," he said.

"They've demonstrated over the past two and half years incredible ... patience, reconciliation and tolerance."

De Mello recalled the reception given to a militia leader, with "blood on his hands," who was brought back to the eastern city of Los Palos to publicly apologise to hundreds of people.

"We had feared he might have been lynched. But most of the people were crying with him."


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