British police may oversee East Timor elections

Click to follow
INDONESIA HAS asked for a British police presence when the people of East Timor vote on their political future on 8 August. Five other countries are being asked for police to help supervise the UN-backed vote, which may lead to East Timor's independence after 23 years of harsh Indonesian rule.

"The UK have the capabilities. They've always shown interest in the country and the region and they have accumulated experience all around the world," Indonesia's President, BJ Habibie, said yesterday.

The other five countries are Australia - whose Prime Minister, John Howard, met Mr Habibie yesterday - the United States, Japan, the Philippines and Germany.

It is not yet clear how many police officers will be needed. There are more than 400 villages in East Timor, many in remote mountain valleys, and some diplomats have suggested that up to half a dozen foreign police might be needed for each one.

The officers would have an advisory role, helping Indonesian police to manage the voting. In practice, they will be there to see that East Timorese supporters of continued Indonesian rule do not try to thwart the vote through terrorism and violence. It is not clear whether the officers will be armed, though it appears unlikely.

Dozens, possibly hundreds, of East Timorese have been killed by loyalist militias this year. The militias have been given a free rein by Indonesian officers opposed to independence, and reports of fresh killings filter out daily.

The loyalists suspect they will be targets for retribution once Jakarta pulls out.

The request for British police officers for East Timor surprised the Foreign Office minister Derek Fatchett when he flew to the Indonesian island of Bali yesterday for a meeting with Mr Habibie. "We only heard about it this afternoon. We have started to discuss some of the details with the president," he said.

However, Mr Fatchett said Britain was willing to help. "There are a number of details we have to work on: first of all, the security issues, the police involved and what is needed. The function we're talking about, and it's very important to recognise this, is a police function. It's not a peace-keeping force," he said.

Mr Fatchett is due to fly to East Timor today to meet local leaders on the first visit by a British minister. Like many Western countries, Britain has started to take an interest in the territory after years of turning a blind eye to reports of Indonesian atrocities.

Indonesia and Portugal - the former colonial power in East Timor - have been negotiating at the United Nations in New York a plan to allow the East Timorese greater autonomy within Indonesia. Indonesia has agreed to pull out completely from the former Portuguese colony if residents reject autonomy. In effect, the vote is a referendum on Indonesian rule.

At the talks, Mr Habibie announced that he now "fully accepts" the whole autonomy plan, including the presence of foreign police, and it will be signed on 5 May. Australia, which has offered to pay roughly half of the cost of the vote, wants the police to go in by the end of May.

Britain and Australia are presenting Mr Habibie's statement as a breakthrough.

"We have got the green light to go through to the ballot," Mr Fatchett said. Mr Habibie has "the power, responsibility and wish" to see the East Timor problem solved peacefully.