FOCUS: CRISIS IN EAST TIMOR: A front-row seat to watch the limits of diplomacy

For five days in Jakarta David Usborne has trailed UN ambassadors in and out of meetings with the Indonesian government and military. It has been a painful business
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What has been the lowest moment for the UN Security Council ambassadors on their mission in Jakarta this past week?

Was it when the puppet president, BJ Habibie, pronounced that the reports of killings and destruction from East Timor were all "fantasies and lies"? When the rebel leader, Xanana Gusmao, fought back tears as he begged them to do something, anything, to save his people? Or when General Wiranto, the all-powerful chief of the army, spurned the offer of international troops and invited them to join him in a round of golf?

For my part, it was surely in a banquet room in the Melati Hotel on Wednesday night, after our first full day in the capital. Discreetly inserting myself into the slipstream of the ambassadors with whom I had flown from New York, I found myself attending a meeting with the leader of the main opposition party and the person most likely to become the next Indonesian president, Megawati Sukarnoputri.

Nobody knew that Ms Megawati, the daughter of the late President Sukarno, had arranged dinner. We were sipping Cokes when doors were thrown open to reveal a table elaborately laid for her, her advisers and the ambassadors. Clearly, I was about to be found out. Somehow, though, there was a place set for me. It was only when we were seated that she suggested we all introduce ourselves. I announced that I was a journalist. Ms Megawati was appalled, but did not throw me out.

In the days since, I have become more bold. The ambassadors, including Britain's Sir Jeremy Greenstock, have taken me under their wing, and I have attended most of their meetings with the government and military. For five days I have been able to watch first-hand the frantic efforts to find some diplomatic means to persuade Indonesia that the violence in East Timor must stop and that its vote, taken on 30 August, in favour of independence must be honoured.

The limits of the diplomatic trade have been on full display. No moment last week was more poignant than the meeting with Mr Gusmao in the spartan room in the British Embassy where he has taken sanctuary since his release from house arrest on Tuesday. At the end Sir Jeremy leant forward and told him, "You don't have to persuade us of what is happening in East Timor. What we need to know is what we should do next." Mr Gusmao told him: you should intervene militarily to end the exterminations. Well, yes.

While the ambassadors, or most of them, may be sympathetic to an invasion, they cannot say it. It is not in their "mandate", agreed by the full Council before they came. They can only remind the Indonesians that foreign troops have been offered to them to help restore order in East Timor. And at every turn that offer has been rejected. It was spurned by Mr Habibie in his palace on Thursday, and again on Friday by General Wiranto in his sprawling headquarters just outside town. Surrounded by 20 of his generals, the army head made one concession: he agreed to yesterday's visit to Dili by the UN team.

Most of us barely knew Indonesia before last week. "It is not exactly Blair's Britain," one official remarked early on. On Wednesday everyone's attention was taken off East Timor by an explosion of rumours that President Habibie was about to step down and that General Wiranto would seize power. It did not happen, even if most observers believe a creeping coup is taking place instead. Strangers - undercover police, we think - videotape us wherever we go. When three of us were kept out of the Habibie meeting and held in a palace antechamber, we stopped talking politics when we noticed guards taking notes of everything we said.

The sense of Indonesian nationalism pervades every discussion and meeting. It has burst out every day in small but noisy demonstrations, particularly just across the road from the hotel outside the UN headquarters. The anger is directed mostly at the UN, because most Indonesians believe the East Timor referendum was rigged in favour of independence supporters, and at Australia, the country thought most likely to send peacekeepers to East Timor if that day ever comes. How ironic, when the UN did so much for Indonesian independence and Australia has been pouring billions into the country for years.

Leaving the hotel with the ambassadors on our first day and climbing into a limousine, I got a sharp nudge from a UN minder. I was smiling, and it would be caught by the cameras filming us. He was right, because there is nothing to smile about.

There is no need to rehearse all the tragedy that is transpiring in East Timor now. But here is one quite terrible anecdote. When an official visited Mr Gusmao on Tuesday, just after his release, they were interrupted by a phone call for the rebel leader in exile. It was from two priests in East Timor. They had been surrounded by militiamen and were about to be shot. They were calling to say goodbye. When he ended the call, Mr Gusmao broke down. Who wouldn't?

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