Dili residents celebrate as peacekeeping force grows
But potential for violence remains in much of East Timor
September 21, 1999
From staff and wire reports
DILI, East Timor (CNN) -- As the presence of an international peacekeeping force in East Timor grows, so do the hopes of pro-independence East Timorese after weeks of terror and violence.
Thousands of exuberant residents of the capital of Dili, who fled to the hills after a referendum on independence sparked rampages by pro-Jakarta militias, are returning to the burnt-out city.
One woman says she has not seen her husband in more than two weeks. Her family's home was burned and their belongings looted. But she and her children are smiling now and raising their fists for independence.
"We are not afraid anymore. We feel safe," the woman's daughter said.
"What was really a ghost town when I stopped by here on my reconnaissance the other day is starting to come alive," said peacekeeping commander Peter Cosgrove on Tuesday.
"Simply where we stand, we're having a good effect," Cosgrove said, briefing reporters on the second day of the U.N. mission to stabilize the territory. "So far, so good."
The arrival of Australian Blackhawk helicopters triggered a minor dust storm at the Dili airport Tuesday, while trucks and armored vehicles rolled ashore from the small naval armada off the coast.
But the multinational force, now numbering more than 2,000 troops, is still way below its final strength of 7,500 and has yet to fan out through Dili and beyond. Until it does so, security is a daytime illusion and the potential for violence remains.
Four people were killed in a gun battle on Tuesday between East Timorese resistance fighters and a pro-Jakarta militia, a militiaman said.
Three members of the Falintil pro-independence resistance carried out a roadblock about 60 kilometers (37 miles) west of Dili when militiamen forced their way through in an attempt to reach West Timor.
"At first we thought only one person was armed but then we realized that three carried arms," said the militiaman, who asked not to be identified.
"We were carrying five M-16s with us," he added.
Three of the militiamen and one resistance member were reported to have died in the clash, in the Loes-Maubara area near the border with West Timor.
The militias are accused of killing thousands of people in the brutal backlash following the August 30 ballot. East Timorese voted overwhelmingly to end 23 years of Indonesian rule in the referendum organized by the United Nations.
An estimated 140,000 East Timorese, including both supporters and opponents of independence, have fled the bloodshed to West Timor. Militiamen have also taken refuge there as the multinational troops began to arrive to restore order.
As many as 300,000 Timorese have been made homeless by the upheaval.
Indonesia's military has been accused of aiding the militias in their attacks on independence supporters, and thousands have demonstrated in Jakarta against letting East Timor separate from the country.
In a rare appearance before parliament on Tuesday, Indonesian President B.J. Habibie defended his policy on East Timor and urged lawmakers to accept the province's independence as a means to restore the country's tarnished international image.
"We should accept the desires of the East Timorese," Habibie said. "We have to seek ways in a democratic manner for us to be accepted by the international community."
Habibie relented to enormous international pressure and agreed September 12 to allow an international peacekeeping force into East Timor, after Indonesian troops failed to restore law and order.
The move was unpopular among members of Habibie's ruling Golkar party, the military and opposition parties.
"I have done the best I could," Habibie declared. His appearance was the first time any Indonesian president went before parliament to explain his policy.
Habibie urged lawmakers "to move forward" by resolving the conflict. The 500-member People's Consultative Assembly is expected to meet next month to decide whether to ratify the ballot results.
New wave of peacekeepers sails into East Timor
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