East Timor Crisis: US moves nearer to intervention

IN A sharp shift in policy, the United States accused the Indonesian army yesterday of direct involvement in attacks on civilians and UN officials in East Timor. This is the first time the US has acknowledged what has been clear for days on the ground, indicating that the West is set on a course of confrontation with the Indonesian military, and is moving towards direct military intervention.

"I am alarmed by reports I have just received of attacks on the UN compound in Dili. It is now clear that the Indonesian military is aiding and abetting the militia violence. This is simply unacceptable," President Bill Clinton said. He was travelling from America to New Zealand for a meeting of the Asia- Pacific Economic Co-operation organisation.

In a forcefully worded statement, the President said that Indonesia must accept an international force. "The Indonesian government and military must reverse this course, do everything possible to stop the violence and allow an international force to make possible the restoration of security,'' Mr Clinton said.

Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, said martial law had failed to restore order. He urged Indonesia to accept foreign military aid "to fulfil its responsibility to bring order and security to the people of East Timor".

France said it would join an international peace-keeping force in East Timor if the UN Security Council created one.

Tony Blair told Indonesia that it faced economic isolation if it did not act to curb the violence. In a 15-minute telephone conversation the Prime Minister told Indonesia's President, B J Habibie, that "there was mounting horror around the world at what was being allowed to happen in East Timor".

President Habibie told Mr Blair the situation would be brought under control. A spokesman for Mr Blair said: "The Prime Minister was therefore dismayed that the situation on the ground has not improved and that eyewitnesses say that far from attempting to restore order, the Indonesian armed forces are still standing by and in some cases assisting the militia in their campaign of destruction and terror."

Only hours before Mr Clinton's statement, the US had said that the solution to the problem could still be in Indonesia's hands, and said that an international force was only necessary if the military could not handle the problem.

America had been trying to handle the problem through military-to-military links. The chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Henry H Shelton, had telephoned Indonesia's Chief General Wiranto twice. "I ... laid out to him in no uncertain terms what I felt that we needed to see from Indonesia and specifically from him and the army," General Shelton said on Thursday.

America also sent the commander of American forces in the Pacific, Admiral Dennis Blair, to Jakarta on Wednesday, apparently bearing an ultimatum: either the military solved the problem or the US would break off military relations. Military relations were ended on Thursday night.

America had earlier insisted that it would not send ground troops for any UN force, but that position had also shifted by yesterday. "I don't think anything is ruled out here," said the National Security Adviser, Sandy Berger. "I think that what the Australians are most interested in are those things that we have a special capability in: logistics and communications, intelligence and air lift," he said. "But we have not made any decisions beyond that and ruled anything out."

Mr Clinton's intervention, designed to stiffen the resolve of the UN Security Council, follows behind-the-scenes prompting by New Zealand and Australia. During telephone calls with Mr Clinton, the New Zealand and Australian prime ministers reminded him of their recent contributions to US-led multinational forces in other parts of the world.

New Zealand government sources are more optimistic that US assistance might now go beyond token logistical help for Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Fiji, the countries that would contribute the bulk of the troops to any multinational force. The New Zealand Prime Minister, Jenny Shipley, is expected to flesh out options at a meeting with Mr Clinton before tomorrow's summit.

East Timor will be central to Apec's weekend work. Discussions will include the desperate need for humanitarian aid to help Timorese displaced after the havoc wreaked by pro-Jakarta militias. After meeting the Timorese independence leader Jose Ramos Horta yesterday afternoon, Mrs Shipley called on Indonesia to allow aid into the stricken territory. Under huge domestic pressure to do something, she followed America's lead last night and cut military ties with Jakarta.