EAST TIMOR IN TURMOIL: Back at the UN, talk but no hurry to intervene

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The Independent Online
EAST TIMOR may be sliding into anarchy and terror, but the major powers are showing no sign at the UN or in their individual capitals of intervening to restore order.

At the UN, where officials said there was "absolutely no suggestion" of an early meeting of the Security Council, the mood last night was one of hope against hope that the violence would subside of its own accord. Diplomats in New York know that any attempt to send in an armed international peacekeeping force against the wishes of Indonesia would almost certainly fall foul of a Chinese veto, and the opposition of the two Islamic countries currently on the Council.

That sentiment is shared by Australia, Indonesia's southern neighbour and the obvious - indeed almost the only - candidate to send a force into the province without delay. John Howard, the Australian Prime Minister, said he had been told by President B J Habibie that Jakarta would not condone a formal peacekeeping force until its parliament had formally approved East Timor's independence - probably not before October at the earliest.

In that case, the thousands of Australian troops currently stationed at Darwin 700 km (440 miles) to the south east across the Timor Sea would intervene only to evacuate Australian nationals. Despite the worsening crisis, the Canberra government is reluctant to take even this step, on the grounds that evacuation would send the militia mobs a signal that they were winning.

Nor has there been any hint of action from the US, for all its military muscle in East Asia. Thus even an ad hoc "coalition of the willing," led by Australia, the US and New Zealand, ready to send troops to East Timor looks a non-starter. As Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary put it yesterday, "nobody is going to to fight their way in".

With force all but ruled out, the Western powers can only watch as events unfold, insisting that responsibility for maintaining law and order lies with Indonesia, in line with existing agreements brokered by the UN - in defiance of the evidence that Indonesian troops in East Timor have no intention of exercising that responsibility.

This weekend's meeting of EU Foreign ministers in Finland did nothing to reduce the sense of impotence. East Timor was top of the agenda, but the assembled ministers could do little more than scold and exhort. As Mr Cook put it, after discussing the crisis with his US, Australian and New Zealand counterparts, they had been hearing "the right words" from Jakarta, but not yet the deeds to match.

None the less, he rejected calls for an immediate halt to British military exports and a withdrawal of the invitation to Indonesia to attend the forthcoming Government-sponsored arms fair at Chertsey. No weapons licensed for export by the present Government were being used in East Timor, claimed Mr Cook, who is dispatching John Battle, a Foreign Office minister, as his "personal envoy" to the region.

With the US unwilling to intervene, and with the major European powers unable to spare troops from Kosovo and other peacekeeping missions, and with no one willing to clash head-on with Indonesia, there is scant likelihood of any substantial armed international force going into East Timor for at least eight weeks, and probably longer than that.