Arrival of East Timor force 'imminent,' commander says
September 19, 1999
DILI, East Timor (CNN) -- The arrival of a multinational peacekeeping force in East Timor is "imminent," its commander said Sunday as he led an advance team into the ravaged island territory's capital.
Australian Maj. Gen. Peter Cosgrove arrived in Dili on Sunday for a three-hour visit with Indonesian military officials as troops from the international force, dubbed "Interfet," steamed toward Dili from the the Australian base at Darwin.
Troops from more than 20 nations will make up the multinational force, the first part of which sailed from Darwin on Saturday for a trip expected to take about 24 hours.
"The arrival of that force in East Timor is imminent," Cosgrove said Sunday.
While Cosgrove would not elaborate on the timing of his contingent's landing, Indonesian military officials in Dili said they expect the force to arrive about noon Monday.
The multinational contingent is expected to total about 7,500, and about 2,000 are believed en route. The troops face an uncertain reception in the island territory, which Indonesia occupied in 1975.
Its residents voted overwhelmingly for independence in an August referendum, but the results sparked weeks of rioting and arson by militias who wanted to remain under Jakarta's rule.
Leaders of those militias have threatened to resist the arrival of the multinational force.
"We are anticipating that there may be some disquiet at our arrival," Cosgrove said, so the advance team he led into Dili will thoroughly explain its plans to Indonesian commanders. At the same time, "We are encouraging the militias to lay down their arms, to return to their homes, return Timor to a peaceful environment and get on with their lives."
He said Interfet has a mandate for "self-protection under all circumstances."
"The force will go in prepared," Cosgrove said.
Australia will provide more than half the force in its largest military deployment since World War II. Australian Prime Minister John Howard was scheduled to address the nation later Sunday to provide further information on the operation.
Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, meanwhile, called predictions that the militias would launch a guerrilla war against the international force "deeply pessimistic."
"I think it is less than likely that that will happen," Downer said.
After the militia's three-week rampage, much of Dili was in ruins, and looting remained common Sunday. Indonesian troops were disarming militia members as the Interfet force approached.
Indonesian military spokesman Maj. Gen. Sudrajat called the idea of his forces attacking the peacekeepers "absurd and unethical." But across largely-Muslim Indonesia, tens of thousands of people have signed up as troops in a holy war against U.N. forces.
"The call for jihad against foreign intervention in East Timor should be understood as a spontaneous heroism," said Hasyim Muzadi, head of the Nadhlatul Ulajma in East Java.
Troops from 23 countries have amassed in the north Australian port of Darwin in preparation for service with Interfet. They also will be responsible for safeguarding relief officials trying to provide food and shelter for a wave of East Timorese who fled their homes during the militia rampage.
Tens of thousands fled to East Timor's rugged hill country and are on the brink of starvation. Other refugees, trucked by the military to camps in neighboring West Timor, face the possibility of disease due to overcrowding. Others are trickling back to their burned-out homes.
Indonesian troops have helped haul bags of rice and medicine to refugee camps in the mountains. The United Nations prepared a second air drop of much needed food and supplies for the territory, but the bulk of its humanitarian mission would have to wait for the peacekeepers to restore order.
"We need to get much more tonnage in on the ground, and that will be done when the troops go in," U.N. spokesman David Wimhurst said.
Jakarta Bureau Chief Maria Ressaand correspondents Martin Savidge and Matthew Chance contributed to this report.
Armed with U.N. approval, Australia prepares for East Timor mission
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