Subject: UN Forces Return Fire For First Time; Tension Escalates
Date: Sat, 25 Sep 1999 12:40:50 -0400

Gunfire in Dili as militias threaten showdown

Escalation of tension as fears of a major clash mount

DILI, East Timor, Sept 23 (AFP) - Armed militia clashed with peacekeepers in the East Timorese capital for the first time Thursday, sending gunfire ringing out over the city in a major escalation of tension here.

The commander of the multinational troops said he would speed up deployment in response to the trouble and reports that pro-Jakarta militia were massing outside Dili and on the border with Indonesian West Timor.

"I am looking to accelerate the arrival of troops into East Timor," Australian Major General Peter Cosgrove told reporters.

Some 3,800 troops have been deployed from a 7,500-strong force charged with wresting control from the anti-independence militias who have terrorised the territory and forced most of its people to flee their homes.

Gunfire crackled out over Dili in several separate incidents, including one where the Indonesian military said multinational troops had fired into the air to warn off Indonesian troops collecting ammunition from a store in Dili.

"Interfet had a misunderstanding about the activities of Indonesian soldiers who were moving goods from the store," Indonesian military spokesman Colonel Willem Rampangilei said of the International Force in East Timor.

"Misunderstandings sometimes happen in the field."

However, the commander of the British contingent in the force denied any of the international troops had used their weapons and accused Indonesian troops of firing shots near his soldiers.

"I am not aware of any shots being fired by Interfet troops," Brigadier David Richards told reporters.

Richards said automatic gunfire fired in the air from trucks believed to be carrying Indonesian territory troops near a contingent of Gurkhas was an attempt to test the renowned force's mettle.

"We were expecting just this kind of activity. They are probably trying to find out what our response drills are -- are we quick, are we disciplined -- I think they're trying to see what we do," he said.

The skirmishes came as fears of a major clash between the multinational force and the militias mounted.

About 500 militiamen were massing in the town of Liquisa, west of the capital Dili, saying they would mount an attack on multinational peacekeepers, witnesses said.

"We want war," one of the camouflage-wearing militia said.

Cosgrove said he was also concerned about reports that pro-Jakarta militia were massing on the border of West Timor, but that the international force did not have a mandate to act outside East Timor.

"I have heard there are reports of militia from West Timor planning to come into the province," he said. "We are going to monitor their progress and see what eventuates."

Another confrontation took place between Australian and Indonesian troops at an Indonesian military camp in the Taibessi area of eastern Dili.

One report said Interfet troops had entered an empty military compound there and tangled with Indonesian soldiers who returned unexpectedly.

A journalist who accompanied the Indonesian military said the foreign troops fired warning shots, but other accounts said they were chased out by Indonesian soldiers.

Indonesian military spokesman Colonel Willem Rampangili told reporters his forces and Interfet troops charged with restoring peace in East Timor were investigating the incident.

Witnesses said retreating Indonesian troops were also sending volleys of automatic gunfire into the air as they sped out of Dili.

Lieutenant Colonel Peter Welch, commanding officer of the Third Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment, said three suspected members of the East Timorese militia were arrested in another incident.

An AFP journalist saw three men, their hands tied behind their backs, being marched at gunpoint towards the peacekeepers' headquarters. A volley of gunfire was heard from the scene of the arrest, but it was not clear who fired.

Welch, describing the incident as the first serious conflict between militia forces and the Australian-led peacekeeping force, said it appeared to have been an attempt by the militia to be seen and heard.

Shots also rang out from the harbour where Indonesian soldiers are stationed, causing scores of people to flee in panic.

Soldiers from the Kostrad army strategic command guarding their dockside compound were seen pointing their guns from behind high fences at the hundreds of refugees who cram the port every day, witnesses said.

Cries of "militias, militias" were heard as the crowd ran towards a park, already packed with refugees, in front of the burned-down Mahkota Hotel.

Cosgrove said he had been given a "rough timetable" for the Indonesian troops' withdrawal from East Timor. Australian defence personnel have said they expect it to be complete by Sunday.

Major S. Ahmad, of an East Javanese territorial battalion preparing to leave Dili, said there would soon be chaos in the territory.

"We will be departing from East Timor soon, maybe today. After today all hell will break loose," he said.

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